Oklahoma sued for funding US’s first ‘state-sponsored’ religious charter school


<span>Photograph: Reuters</span>

Photograph: Reuters

The American Civil Liberties Union and a handful of civil organizations have filed a lawsuit to stop the Oklahoma state government from funding the US’s first religious public charter school, in turn setting up a fierce debate surrounding religious liberties.

On Monday, the ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Education Law Center and Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit on behalf of nearly a dozen plaintiffs including parents, education activists and faith leaders seeking to stop Oklahoma from sponsoring and funding St Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School.

The lawsuit, which names the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, the state education department, the state superintendent of public instruction and St Isidore as defendants, argues that the SVCSB violated the state constitution, the Oklahoma Charter Schools Act, and the board’s own regulations when it voted 3-2 in June to approve St Isidore’s charter-school sponsorship application.

Charter schools in the US are publicly funded but independently run. If opened next year, St Isidore will join two dozen charter schools in Oklahoma.

According to the lawsuit, St Isidore refused to agree to comply with legal requirements applicable to state charter schools, including prohibitions against discrimination. It states that St Isidore will in fact “discriminate in admissions, discipline, and employment based on religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, and other protected characteristics”.

The lawsuit argues that the online public school “asserts a right to discriminate against students on the basis of disability”, and that its application failed to comply with the board’s regulations that require the school to “demonstrate that it would provide adequate services to students with disabilities”.

The suit also alleges that St Isidore will violate board regulations that require a charter school to be independent of its educational management organization, as the school will hire the department of Catholic education of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City as its educational management organization. The school will also be overseen by the Diocese of Tulsa.

Additionally, the lawsuit argues that in violation of the state constitution and the Charters Schools Act, St Isidore will “provide a religious education and indoctrinate its students in Catholic religious beliefs,” adding that its application states that the school “will be a place…of evangelization” that “participates in the evangelizing mission of the Church”.

Oklahoma attorney general Gentner Drummond said St Isidore’s approval was ‘unconstitutional’.

Oklahoma attorney general Gentner Drummond said: ‘The approval of any publicly funded religious school is contrary to Oklahoma law and not in the best interest of taxpayers.’ Photograph: Sue Ogrocki/AP

St Isidore, which plans to open in August 2024, describes itself as a school that puts “the church at the service of the community in the realm of education” and that it envisions a learning opportunity for “all students whose parents desire a quality Catholic education for their child”.

Speaking to the Guardian, Erin Brewer, the vice-chair of the Oklahoma parent legislative action committee, a nonprofit statewide organization and the lawsuit’s lead plaintiff, condemned what she called “state-sponsored religion”.

“Our kids have the right to religious freedom and for the state to sponsor religious education and indoctrination, I think it is wrong,” said Brewer.

“I think it’s a misunderstanding of what religious freedom means. Religious freedom is an individual right. There’s nothing preventing the Catholic Archdiocese in Oklahoma City from operating as a school … but to request the government to fund that religion … that is not religious freedom because now the government is compelling religion upon students. That is a violation of those students’ rights as well as of the rights of taxpayers who may or may not agree with those religious tenets,” she added.

Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit include Krystal Bonsall, a parent of a public school student who has disabilities that require speech and occupational therapy, as well as Michele Medley, a parent of three children, two of whom are autistic and one of whom is part of the LGBTQ community.

Bonsall, whose child requires the accompaniment of a paraprofessional in class, released a statement saying, “Our public tax dollars should not be sent to a religious school that asserts a right to discriminate against students with disabilities. St Isidore should not be allowed to divert scarce resources away from public schools that are open to all children regardless of ability, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, or religion.”

Medley echoed similar sentiments, saying: “As the mother of two children on the autism spectrum, I have firsthand experience with private religious schools’ unwillingness to accept and meet the educational needs of students with autism and other developmental disabilities.”

“I am also aware of the possible religious discrimination against LGBTQIA+ students that could harm my child and others. I don’t want my tax dollars to fund a charter school that won’t commit to adequately accepting and educating all students,” she added.

Faith leaders involved in the lawsuit have also weighed in on the debate, with many arguing that such funding is contradictory to religious freedoms.

Bruce Prescott, a retired Baptist minister who served as executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, said, “Religious schools – like houses of worship – should be funded through voluntary contributions from their own membership, not money extracted involuntarily with state taxes from members of a religiously diverse community.”

Lori Walke, another plaintiff and senior minister of the Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ also pushed back against the state-funded school, saying, “As a pastor, I care deeply about religious freedom. But creating a religious public charter school is not religious freedom. Forcing taxpayers to fund a religious school that will be a ‘place of evangelization’ for one specific religion is not religious freedom.”

In June, the state’s attorney general Gentner Drummond said in a statement that St Isidore’s approval was “unconstitutional”.

“The approval of any publicly funded religious school is contrary to Oklahoma law and not in the best interest of taxpayers … It’s extremely disappointing that board members violated their oath in order to fund religious schools with our tax dollars,” Drummond added.

Speaking to KFOR, Drummond said that St Isidore’s approval marks a “step down a slippery slope that will result someday in state funded Satanic schools, state funded Sharia schools”.

The Guardian has reached out to both the archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board. The SVCSB said that it “does not comment on pending litigation”.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma’s Republican governor Kevin Stitt praised the SVCSB’s decision back in June when it approved St Isidore’s application, calling it a “win for religious liberty and education freedom in our great state”.

State superintendent Ryan Walters, who is named in the lawsuit, condemned the legal action as “religious persecution”, saying, “Suing and targeting the Catholic Virtual Charter School is religious persecution because of one’s faith, which is the very reason that religious freedom is constitutionally protected. A warped perversion of history has created a modern day concept that all religious freedom is driven from the classrooms,” Public Radio Tulsa reports.

Other defendants of the school include Brett Farley, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma, who told the National Catholic Register in June that the school will be “elevating the soul” of students.

Farley also doubled down on the state’s funding of St Isidore, saying, “The only thing that would stop this is a court decision telling us we can’t do it.”

This article originally appeared on www.aol.com

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