‘Gonna blow up’: State seeks to open first-of-its-kind religious virtual charter school

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(Photo courtesy Twitter / Padma Lakshmi)
(Photo courtesy Twitter / Padma Lakshmi)

By Reagan Reese
Daily Caller News Foundation

  • The Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board is currently considering an application by the Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City for the country’s first virtual religious charter school.
  • The decision, whether the application is approved or denied, will most likely be met with lawsuits after state Attorney General Gentner Drummond chose to withdraw a previous opinion which established that public funds could be provided to religious charter schools, advocates for the school told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
  • “No matter what happens with the board, someone’s going to file a lawsuit against the state. It’s either going to be us or it’s gonna be someone like ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] and/or Americans United [for Separation of Church and State]. One of those two options is unavoidable. It just really depends on what the board does. If they deny, it’ll be us suing. If they approve, it’ll be one of those other two parties. I think we’re gonna see this hopefully go to the Supreme Court as it is something that they need to answer,” Brett Farley, the executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma, told the DCNF.

Oklahoma is weighing the establishment and funding of a virtual Catholic charter school, a decision that could bring court challenges, advocates for the school told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

The Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board is currently considering the Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City’s application for a virtual charter school, a decision that would provide state funds and establish the country’s first online religious charter school. Whether the board approves or denies the charter school, the state will most likely be met with lawsuits due to a decision by Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond to reverse a previous opinion which established that public funds could be provided to religious charter schools, advocates told the DCNF.

“The logical next step would be to file a lawsuit,” Brett Farley, the executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma, which is spearheading the application effort, told the DCNF. “No matter what happens with the board, someone’s going to file a lawsuit against the state. It’s either going to be us or it’s gonna be someone like ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] and/or Americans United [for Separation of Church and State]. One of those two options is unavoidable. It just really depends on what the board does. If they deny, it’ll be us suing. If they approve, it’ll be one of those other two parties. I think we’re gonna see this hopefully go to the Supreme Court as it is something that they need to answer.”

In December, former Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor issued an opinion arguing that state law, which requires charter schools that use public funds to offer a secular education, is unconstitutional. O’Connor made the decision in the light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling that public funding can be used for students attending religious schools.

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“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.

O’Connor’s decision to allow publicly funded religious charter schools in the state prompted the Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City’s application for a virtual charter school, which would need up to $2.5 million to host as many as 500 students in its first year, Farley told the DCNF. Opening the school in the state would allow students to access religious classes that normally aren’t provided at public schools.

Drummond withdrew O’Connor’s opinion in February, arguing that it “misuses the concept of religious liberty by employing it as a means to justify state-funded religion.” Approving the Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City’s application would create a “slippery slope” and require the state to approve all religious charter schools, some of which Christians may be “diametrically opposed to,” Drummond’s opinion stated.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State urged Drummond to reverse O’Connor’s decision and is considering a lawsuit against the state if the charter school application is approved, the group told the DCNF.

“We would certainly give very serious consideration to filing litigation if the application is approved, in consultation with affected Oklahoma taxpayers, parents, educators and others,” Alex Luchenitser, associate vice president and associate legal director at Americans United, told the DCNF.

Despite Drummond’s opposition to the charter school, Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and state Superintendent Ryan Walters support the application for the religious institution, saying that the “government takes a backseat to parents” in deciding what educational system best suits their child, a press release stated.

“It’s quite clear that in the state of Oklahoma, as the attorney general last year concluded, their charter school law violates the Free Exercise Clause,” Nicole Garnett, a John P. Murphy Foundation Professor of Law at Notre Dame Law School who has been advising the diocese through the application process, told the DCNF. “They’ve chosen to subsidize that provision of education through private providers and they’ve given a lot of leeway to innovate. But they say the only way you can’t innovate is by being religious. That’s unconstitutional. This may be the first rodeo but it’s not the last. There’ll be lawsuits by religious providers who wish to open charter schools, there’ll be other applications in other states. Whatever happens in Oklahoma, this is the beginning and not the end of this.”

The Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board is set to meet on March 21 to consider the charter school, though the board still has 90 days from Jan. 29, the day the application was submitted, to make their decision, Farley told the DCNF.

“We have a number of players that are chomping at the bit to jump into this fight whether it’s filing on behalf of interveners, who are interested also in the opportunity of having a charter school, we’ve been contacted by Jewish communities and some other folks who have some interest in some other entities, such as filing an amicus brief,” Farley told the DCNF. “This situation is gonna blow up pretty big, I think, on both sides. There’s a lot of interested parties on both sides that are really gonna have a dog in this fight.”

Drummond referred the DCNF to his letter withdrawing O’Connor’s opinion and the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board and did not immediately respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.

This story originally was published by the Daily Caller News Foundation.

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