Oklahoma's Republican AG sues to halt first religious charter school in US

Wikimedia Commons/Rantemario
Wikimedia Commons/Rantemario

Oklahoma's Republican attorney general has filed a lawsuit seeking to halt the approval of the United States' first-ever religious charter school, which was greenlit earlier this year in the Sooner State. 

Attorney General Gentner Drummond filed the complaint last Friday against the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board in response to the approval of St. Isidore of Seville Virtual Charter School in June. 

St. Isidore is sponsored by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and would include religious instruction as part of its curriculum while also receiving public funding.

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In a statement, Drummond argued that "Oklahomans are being compelled to fund Catholicism" and warned that this could lead to Oklahomans being "forced to fund radical Muslim teachings like Sharia law."

"As the defender of Oklahoma's religious freedoms, I am prepared to litigate this issue to the United States Supreme Court if that's what is required to protect our Constitutional rights," Drummond said.

"The framers of the U.S. Constitution and those who drafted Oklahoma's Constitution clearly understood how best to protect religious freedom: by preventing the State from sponsoring any religion at all."

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, also a Republican, called the attorney general's lawsuit a "political stunt."

"Drummond seems to lack any firm grasp on the constitutional principle of religious freedom and masks his disdain for the Catholics' pursuit by obsessing over non-existent schools that don't neatly align with his religious preference," Stitt said in a statement.

"The creation of St. Isadore's is a win for religious and education freedom in Oklahoma. 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."

Last year, then-Attorney General John O'Connor and Solicitor General Zach West released an opinion arguing that state prohibitions against faith-based charter schools might not be lawful in light of recent U.S. Supreme Court litigation.

O'Connor and West cited David Carson et al. v. A. Pender Makin, in which the high court ruled 6-3 that Maine's state-operated tuition assistance program could not bar parents from using the funds for religious schools.

Chief Justice John Roberts authored the majority opinion, stating, "We have repeatedly held that a State violates the Free Exercise Clause when it excludes religious observers from otherwise available public benefits."

"As noted, a neutral benefit program in which public funds flow to religious organizations through the independent choices of private benefit recipients does not offend the Establishment Clause," wrote Roberts. 

"Maine's 'nonsectarian' requirement for its otherwise generally available tuition assistance payments violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Regardless of how the benefit and restriction are described, the program operates to identify and exclude otherwise eligible schools on the basis of their religious exercise."

In June, the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board voted 3-2 to approve the charter application for St. Isidore, with the virtual school slated to begin holding classes in fall 2024.

Progressive groups, among them the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Education Law Center and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, filed a lawsuit against state school officials over the vote in late July.

Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United, said in a statement that the approval of St. Isidore represented "a sea change for American democracy."

"It's hard to think of a clearer violation of the religious freedom of Oklahoma taxpayers and public-school families than the state establishing a public school that is run as a religious school," said Laser.

"We're witnessing a full-on assault on church-state separation and public education — and religious public charter schools are the next frontier. America needs a national recommitment to church-state separation."  

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