Oklahoma: Both Sides Cite Religious Freedom in Ongoing Legal Dispute Over America’s First Religious Public School

It began in May of this year when Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bill into law that gave a tax incentive to parents who send their children to private and parochial school. Denounced by the opposition as “a tax shelter for individuals who can already afford private school tuition,” it was a prelude for what was to happen June 5: the approval by the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board of an application submitted by the Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City to establish what would be the first religious public charter school in America.

Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond, who had warned that the establishment of a taxpayer-supported religious school would violate both state law and the state’s constitution, now issued another warning. In a statement after the school board’s approval vote, Gentner reiterated the illegality of what the archdiocese had done and what the school board had allowed, adding that it is “not in the best interest of taxpayers. It’s extremely disappointing that board members violated their oath to fund religious schools with our tax dollars. In doing so, these members have exposed themselves and the state to potential legal action that could be costly.”

While Governor Stitt applauded the establishment of the school, St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School in Oklahoma City, as “a win for religious liberty,” the Rev. Lori Walke, senior minister at Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City, strongly disagreed. “Creating a religious public charter school is not religious freedom,” Walke said. “Our churches already have the religious freedom to start our own schools if we choose to do so. And parents already have the freedom to send their children to those religious schools. But when we entangle religious schools to the government … we endanger religious freedom for all of us.”

Now as the year winds down, state Attorney General Drummond, who filed his own brief this October, has said he’s ready to take it to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary. Meanwhile, a separate filing was made this past summer by various organizations, including Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Education Law Center.

Now Rev. Wilke, along with the Rev. Mitch Randall and education advocates Melissa Abdo and Bruce Prescott have asked the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s permission to join the attorney general’s lawsuit.

Abdo, asserting that her decision to join the plaintiffs was not an anti-Catholic stance, said, “I’m Catholic; this happens to be a Catholic school effort, but I would never expect people of another faith to pay for educating children in the Catholic faith.”

Rev. Randall, a Baptist minister, is also a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, a Native American tribe located in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. His grandmother underwent forced assimilation—abandoning one’s native tongue and traditional dress—at a missionary boarding school for Native Americans. “I know from the stories of my grandmother and her relatives what happens when the church is given federal dollars to assimilate a large swath of people towards their belief,” Randall said. “When I hear about public funding of religious education, it really concerns me not only as a Christian but also as an Indigenous person, that discrimination will be funded by government money.”

Prescott, a retired Baptist minister-turned-advocate, is focused on the issue of students with special needs. During the 1960s, he taught in a private religious school in Houston and saw it struggle to meet disabled students’ needs.

Public schools, he believes, are better positioned to meet those needs and, therefore, should receive the entirety of public funding.

“Religion and religious education need to be paid for by their constituents. Voluntary contribution is how we’ve always done it,” he said.

Sharing Prescott’s concern that St. Isidore will take funds that rightfully should go to Oklahoma’s public schools, Rev. Walke said, “It’s a very big responsibility when we are accountable to the taxpayers because they’re paying for school.”

St. Isidore’s website says, “The primary goal of St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School is to assist parents in the important responsibility of developing the heart, mind, and soul of their child. The St. Isidore Catholic Virtual School envisions a learning opportunity for all students whose parents desire a quality Catholic education for their child regardless of where they live in Oklahoma.” The school plans to open for the 2024-25 school year and expand to 1,500 students after five years of operation.

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