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Oklahoma Catholics could open the door for religious charter schools

The archdioceses aims to set up a virtual charter school — and hopes other will follow its lead

Laura Schuler, senior director for Catholic education at the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, and Michael Scaperlanda, chancellor for the archdiocese, present a proposal for the nation's first publicly funded Catholic charter school on Feb. 14. (Doug Hoke/The Oklahoman / Usa Today Network)
9 min

Isidore of Seville was a 6th-century theologian who wrote one of the world’s first encyclopedias, which led modern-day Catholics to unofficially adopt him as the patron saint of the internet. So when it came time for the Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City to select a name for its proposed virtual school, it decided St. Isidore would be a fitting tribute.

With the new program, the archdiocese also seeks to become a trailblazer: It is fighting to make St. Isidore the nation’s first religious charter school.

The Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board is weighing whether to approve the school. If it does, the archdiocese would get public funds to set up and run a school that intends to serve “as a genuine instrument of the Church,” according to its application. By opening the charter school, the archdiocese hopes to fill a need for rural students who want a Catholic education but do not live close enough to a bricks-and-mortar one to attend. But it also hopes to force the question of whether a charter school can be religious, and it expects that its efforts will invite litigation. Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt backs the school’s application; he says that denying the school public funding constitutes religious discrimination.

“We do want to operate a virtual charter school, but we also want to press the answer to this question,” said Brett Farley of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma. “If we prevail, it opens up all kinds of opportunities for school choice across the country, not just in Oklahoma.”

What it proposes is a publicly funded religious school that follows some of the laws that govern public schools, like the requirement it provide special education services, but exempts itself from many others. Asked whether the school would accept openly gay students, for example, Farley said it would consider admitting them on a “case-by-case basis.”

Mainstream public school advocates in Oklahoma have long been anxious about the charter sector drawing taxpayer dollars away from the state’s financially challenged school system. But this effort raises new concerns that religious charter schools would erode the separation of church and state, opening the door for more religious institutions to open schools that would be free to evangelize and flout civil rights law.

Even some charter school advocates are leery of the notion, saying it violates the spirit of the charter school movement, which was intended to create broad-based opportunities for all students.

“This movement was never about private education. It was about public schools and making them better by making them more responsive to the needs of families,” said Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.

The application represents the latest efforts by religious conservatives to push their faith into the public square — and into public schools. They are driven, in part, by those who believe the United States was founded as a Christian nation and that its laws should reflect that. Christian legal organizations have opposed civil rights protections for LGBTQ students and fought to extend prayer into public schools. Conservatives have in several states expanded voucher programs that give parents funds to send their children to private schools, including religious ones.

Although charter schools are privately run, they are publicly funded and, as such, subject to many of the same laws and rules that govern mainstream public schools. (Critics allege that they find ways to exclude students, such as those with disabilities, in violation of civil rights laws.)

Every state that permits charter schools requires them to offer a secular education, including Oklahoma. But before leaving office in January, the state’s attorney general, John M. O’Connor, issued a legal opinion calling Oklahoma’s charter school law unconstitutional because it permits charter schools to be run by private entities — so long as they are not churches.

More states are paying to send children to private and religious schools

“It seems obvious that a state cannot exclude those merely ‘affiliated with’ a religious or sectarian institution from a state created program in which private entities are otherwise generally allowed to participate if they are qualified,” O’Connor wrote, saying the rules violates the Constitution’s free-exercise clause, which protects people’s right to practice their religion. The rules against religious organizations “likely violate the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and therefore should not be enforced.”

The man who succeeded him, Republican Gentner Drummond, disagrees. Drummond, who took office in January, withdrew O’Connor’s opinion in late February, saying it “misuses the concept of religious liberty by employing it as a means to justify state-funded religion.” He also warned that greenlighting St. Isidore’s application created a “slippery slope” that would force the state to support charter schools run by non-Christian religious institutions.

“While many Oklahomans undoubtedly support charter schools sponsored by various Christian faiths, the precedent created by approval of the … application will compel approval of similar applications by all faiths,” Drummond wrote, “even those most Oklahomans would consider reprehensible and unworthy of public funding.”

Opponents also see it as a blatant violation of the Constitution’s establishment clause, which holds that the government cannot “establish” a state religion. Americans United for the Separation of Church and State wrote three letters to the board urging it not to grant the application.

“St. Isidore’s application unabashedly demonstrates that the school would violate constitutional, statutory, and regulatory prohibitions against Oklahoma charter schools,” wrote attorneys Kenneth D. Upton Jr. and Alex J. Luchenitser in a Feb. 10 letter. The school would be “teaching a religious curriculum [and] discriminating in admissions and employment.”

In its application, St. Isidore is forthright about its religious education intentions, quoting a church document that describes Catholic schools as “places of evangelization.” While it said it would accept students of “any faith or no faith,” it also said it would cultivate students to “know that Human persons are destined for life with the Holy Trinity … but that in freedom, an individual may reject God’s invitation and … end up in Hell.” And though it outlines a nondiscrimination policy, it also says it will not abide by any laws or regulations that conflict with the church: “The School complies with all state and federal laws and statutes to the extent the teachings of the Catholic Church allow.”

Still, it would operate in some ways like a public school, its application says: It would follow federal laws that require it to accommodate students with disabilities. Its governance meetings and certain records would be open to the public, as they are in public schools.

Katie Murphree, who works for the Catholic Church and lives just north of Oklahoma City, said the prospect of a free virtual Catholic school excites her. Her eldest three children attended Catholic school until it became clear that one, Kristen, needed special-education services the school could not provide. So all three moved to public school, where Murphree said she lamented they were no longer getting daily lessons on Catholic morality and faith.

Murphree’s youngest daughter, Kelsee, is also a special-education student. Murphree said she loves the idea of being able to give Kelsee a Catholic education without sacrificing the accommodations and services her daughter needs.

“It would be a godsend to so many of us,” Murphree said.

A school made girls wear skirts. A court ruled it unconstitutional.

Much of the fight centers on whether St. Isidore would be considered a “state actor,” subject to the same civil rights laws as mainstream public schools. Because they are privately funded, Catholic schools are free to admit only Catholic families and hire only Catholic employees. They are also not bound by laws that require them to offer special education. It means private religious schools can fire teachers for being in same-sex relationships or expel students because their mother has nude photos on the internet.

Charter schools have typically been considered public schools in the eyes of the law. But some are advocating that they be treated more like private schools.

The challenge comes as a North Carolina lawsuit that could upset how charter schools are governed makes its way through the courts. Three girls filed a federal lawsuit against Charter Day School of Leland, N.C., in 2016 over its dress code, which required girls to wear skirts as part of its aim “to preserve chivalry and respect among young women and men,” according to the school’s founder. The American Civil Liberties Union, which represented the girls, said it was discriminatory. But Charter Day School has argued that it is not a “state actor,” and therefore not bound by the Constitution’s equal protection clause, which bars discrimination. Charter Day School has the backing of attorneys general in several states, who filed briefs supporting its position that charter schools should be considered private.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled against the school, which then appealed to the Supreme Court. The high court has yet to say whether it will take the case.

But those who back publicly funded religious schools have already made significant political and legal inroads. Over the past six years, conservative members of the U.S. Supreme Court have issued rulings that entitled religious institutions to more public dollars.

In a 2017 case, the court ruled that a church-run preschool in Missouri was entitled to a state grant to resurface its playground. Three years later, the court ruled that Montana could not bar recipients of the state’s private school voucher program from using them at religious schools. And last year, the court said that a Maine voucher program that sent rural students to private high schools in communities that had no public ones had to be open to religious schools.

Rachel Laser, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, views what is happening in Oklahoma as part of a broader right-wing campaign to destabilize public schools. But it’s not merely an attack on public schools, she said.

Public schools “are the glue for our democracy and teach our children our country’s values, which are secular, and enable us to come together as equals to build a stronger democracy,” Laser said. “It’s like an attack on our public schools is an attack on democracy.”