Taxpayer Dollars for Catholic School? Oklahoma Shakes Nation's Secularism

Oklahoma gave the green light to establish the first religious charter school in the United States on June 5th, opening a new set of debates on the separation of church and state in public education.

An education board in the state approved the virtual K-12 Catholic charter school, St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School, named after the patron saint of technology, in a 3-to-2 vote. The Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board was composed of members appointed by Oklahoma’s Republican governor, Kevin Stitt.

A Christian conservative, Governor Stitt supported the establishment of religious charter schools and described the approval of the virtual Catholic charter school as a “win for religious liberty and education freedom” in Oklahoma.

Leaders of the local Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa will run St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School. But because the school is a charter school, or a type of public school in the United States that runs independently from the established school system in the state it operates, the school will receive funds from taxpayers.

For the first five years of the school’s operations, taxpayers in Oklahoma are expected to cough up more than $25 million to fund the school. The move to create the United States’ first religious charter school received opposition from public education advocates and non-religious groups to pastors and other religious leaders.

The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City is trying to make charter schools into something they are not,” Nina Rees, chief executive of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a non-religious group advocating for secularism in the United States, announced just minutes after the vote that it would prepare to challenge the decision through legal action.

It’s hard to think of a clearer violation of the religious freedom of Oklahoma taxpayers and public-school families,” Rachel Laser, the group’s president and chief executive, said. “This is a sea change for American democracy.

However, supporters of the plan to create the religious charter school in Oklahoma, like Brett Farley, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma, said they are ready to take on the legal challenges to establishing the school.

He also described the decision as a “victory for parents, for school choice, and for religious liberty,” saying that they are right on this issue.

Both opponents and supporters of religious charter schools have used the First Amendment in the United States Constitution to justify their arguments on the issue, with the former citing violation of the separation of church and state while the latter saying that excluding religious schools from charter funding violates its protection on religious freedom and expression.

The issue also divided Republicans in the state. While Governor Stitt supported the decision to establish St. Isidore, the newly-elected Attorney General of Oklahoma, Gentner Drummond, criticized the school board for approving the creation of the school.

“It’s extremely disappointing that board members violated their oath in order to fund religious schools with our tax dollars,” Gentner said on June 5th.

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