Oklahoma approves first taxpayer-funded religious school in US

The school board’s vote sets in motion a battle between religious freedom and the separation of church and state.

A close-up of a man in a grey suit and red tie.
Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond has warned that the approval of a publicly-funded religious school would violate the state constitution [File: Sue Ogrocki/AP Photo]

A school board in the state of Oklahoma has voted to approve what would be the first publicly-funded religious school in the United States, despite a warning from the state’s attorney general that the decision was unconstitutional.

The Statewide Virtual Charter School Board voted three to two on Monday to approve the application by the Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma to establish the St Isidore of Seville Virtual Charter School.

The online public charter school would be open to students across the state from kindergarten through grade 12, the final year of school.

Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond, however, warned the board that such a decision clearly violated the Oklahoma Constitution.

“The approval of any publicly funded religious school is contrary to Oklahoma law and not in the best interest of taxpayers,” Drummond said in a statement shortly after the board’s vote. “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.”

A brick Catholic church with a steeple, seen from the outdoors in Guthrie, Oklahoma.
The Catholic Church in Oklahoma has pushed for the creation of a publicly-funded virtual charter school to advance its mission [File: Nick Oxford/Reuters]

In the “vision and purpose” section of the school’s application, the Archdiocese of Oklahoma says that “the Catholic school participates in the evangelizing mission of the Church and is the privileged environment in which Christian education is carried out”.

Brett Farley, the executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma, said: “We are elated that the board agreed with our argument and application for the nation’s first religious charter school.”

The nonprofit Americans United for Separation of Church and State denounced the board’s approval.

“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’s president and CEO Rachel Laser said in a statement.

“This is a sea change for American democracy. Americans United will work with our Oklahoma and national partners to take all possible legal action to fight this decision and defend the separation of church and state that’s promised in both the Oklahoma and US Constitutions.”

A man, in a light blue suit and tie, gives a thumbs-up.
Republican Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt has indicated his support for the publicly-funded religious school [File: Brian Snyder/Reuters]

Earlier this year, Oklahoma’s Republican Governor Kevin Stitt signed a bill that would give parents in the state a tax incentive to send their children to private schools, including religious schools. He praised the board’s vote on Monday.

“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.

Source: The Associated Press