PROSPECT HEIGHTS — After the attorney general of Oklahoma filed a lawsuit against the nation’s first religious charter school on grounds that its establishment violates state and federal religious liberty protections, the school has responded that the suit “twists the law of religious liberty beyond recognition.”
Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond announced Oct. 20 that he filed a lawsuit against the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board for approving the establishment of St. Isidore Seville Virtual Charter School, which would be the nation’s first religious charter school.
Drummond filed the lawsuit with the Oklahoma Supreme Court. His claim centers on religious liberty.
“The board members who approved this contract have violated the religious liberty of every Oklahoman by forcing us to fund the teachings of a specific religious sect with our tax dollars,” Drummond, a Republican, said in a statement announcing the lawsuit.
“Today, Oklahomans are being compelled to fund Catholicism,” he said. “Because of the legal precedent created by the board’s actions, tomorrow we may be forced to fund radical Muslim teachings like Sharia law. … That is a gross violation of our religious liberty.”
The board of St. Isidore’s isn’t buying his logic.
“Attorney General Drummond’s lawsuit employs the language of fear and discrimination, twists the law of religious liberty beyond recognition and ignores the very real successes of faith-based schools in our country,” the board told The Tablet.
“Sadly, he also attempts to pit people of different faiths against each other,” the board said. “Religious freedom for all is a cornerstone of our society.”
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a proponent of school choice, called the lawsuit a “political stunt.
“AG Drummond seems to lack any firm grasp of the constitutional principle of religious freedom and masks his disdain for the Catholics’ pursuit by obsessing over nonexistent schools that don’t neatly align with his religious preference,” Stitt said in an Oct. 20 statement.
“The creation of St. Isidore’s is a win for religious and education freedom in Oklahoma,” the governor continued. “We want parents to be able to choose the education that is best for their kids, regardless of income. The state shouldn’t stand in the way.”
The Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board on Oct. 9 approved by a 3-2 vote a contract that established terms for how the school will operate. The board previously approved an application by the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa for the school on June 5.
The intention is for the school to open in the fall of 2024 with grades K-12 and an initial enrollment of about 500 students. The school would be tuition free and receive state funding. The idea for the school came in 2021, when schools nationwide adopted virtual learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The virtual school has already faced multiple hurdles to get to this point, and still faces others besides Drummond’s lawsuit. A group of parents, faith leaders, and an education nonprofit filed a lawsuit in Oklahoma County District back in July seeking to prevent the state from sponsoring the school, and to ensure that it does not receive public funding. The case is pending.
Article II of the Oklahoma Constitution Bill of Rights states that “no public money or property shall ever be appropriated, applied, donated, or used, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion, or for the use, benefit, or support of any priest, preacher, minister, or other religious teacher or dignitary, or sectarian institution as such.”
In 2016, Oklahoma voters rejected amending the state constitution to remove that language.
The U.S. Supreme Court has established that religious schools could receive government funding from grants and school voucher programs. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that a publicly funded school can promote a particular religion, which is the issue at hand in the Oklahoma case.
Drummond also noted in his lawsuit announcement that proceeding with St. Isidore’s risks the state losing more than $1 billion in federal education dollars because the state would no longer be in compliance with applicable laws, such as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
“Oklahomans know all too well that our public schools face a slew of serious challenges,” Drummond said. “Given that reality, it is unconscionable that we would jeopardize desperately needed education dollars for the sake of a blatantly misguided endeavor.”
The board of St. Isidore’s is confident the lawsuit will fall flat.
“We are optimistic that the court will see this lawsuit for what it is: A baseless attempt to enforce exactly the kind of religious discrimination that the Supreme Court has made clear the First Amendment forbids,” the board said in its statement to The Tablet. “We hope that the lawsuit will be resolved quickly so that St. Isidore can focus instead on its critical mission to open the door to a new and innovative learning opportunity to those families and children most in need be.”