(The Hill) – An Oklahoma school board on Monday voted to approve a bid to open the nation’s first religious charter school, sparking backlash and questions about the constitutionality of the move to use taxpayer dollars to fund a religious school.
“We are elated that the board agreed with our argument and application for the nation’s first religious charter school,” Brett Farley, the executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma, said after the decision.
“Parents continue to demand more options for their kids, and we are committed to help provide them,” he added.
The journey for this Catholic school is far from over as many disagree with the idea of a charter school, which receives taxpayer dollars along with private donations, run by a religious organization. Opponents argue it violates the separation between church and state.
The nonprofit Americans United for Separation of Church and State on Monday bashed the decision as a violation of religious freedoms.
“It’s hard to think of a clearer violation of the religious freedom of Oklahoma taxpayers and public-school families than the state establishing the nation’s first religious public charter school,” the group said in a statement, calling the decision “a sea change for American democracy.”
“State and federal law are clear: Charter schools are public schools that must be secular and open to all students,” Americans United said. The group says it’s preparing legal action.
Though some religious schools do receive government money, the new St. Isidore school would be fully government-funded, the New York Times reports.
Supporters of the school argue charter school laws are different in each state and, while in some states a religious charter school may be impermissible, it is allowed under Oklahoma law. Some also see Monday’s approval as a win for religious freedom.
And while school choice is popular among conservatives, even top officials in Oklahoma are split on the decision.
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) on Monday applauded the decision, calling it a “win for religious liberty.”
“This is a win for religious liberty and education freedom in our great state, and I am encouraged by these efforts to give parents more options when it comes to their child’s education,” Stitt said in a statement.
Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond (R), on the other hand, called the decision unconstitutional and “disappointing,” arguing the approval of any publicly-funded religious school goes against state law.
“It’s extremely disappointing that board members violated their oath in order 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,” Drummond said.
Even those whom the religious charter school might have thought of as friendly to the decision have come out against it.
“This decision runs afoul of state law and the U.S. Constitution. All charter schools are public schools, and as such must be non-sectarian. Charter schools were conceived as, and have always been, innovative public schools that provide an alternative for families who want a public school option other than the one dictated by their ZIP code,” said Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.
The religious charter school has already overcome some adversity as its application was first denied in April, but the school had the opportunity to fix some of the perceived issues in the application.
And in terms of threats from lawsuits, the school is not afraid of it, but wants to embrace them.
“We’re not surprised by the threat of a suit, but we will be preparing if they choose to file one,” Farley said. “This is a question that ultimately needs to be answered by the courts, perhaps by the US Supreme Court.”
Those supportive of the religious charter school have some optimism the conservative-majority Supreme Court would be more sympathetic to their case, especially after favorable rulings for religious schools previously.