Oklahoma board unanimously rejects novel proposal for state-sponsored religious charter school

by Chris Lange

Chris Lange, FISM News


A statewide board in Oklahoma on Tuesday voted unanimously to reject a proposal from the state’s Catholic Conference to create the first-of-its-kind religious charter school.

The proposal for the St. Isidore of Seville Virtual School was submitted by The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. 

The Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board raised a number of concerns in its disapproval of the application, including questions about the constitutionality of a publicly funded religious school, according to The Washington Post. The Archdiocese has the opportunity to address the board’s concerns and resubmit the proposal within 30 days.

Brett Farley, executive director of the Oklahoma Catholic Conference and a board member for the proposed school, took the news in stride, telling Catholic News Agency (CNA) that he and the plan’s backers are “not discouraged at all.” Among those supporters are Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt and former state schools superintendent Ryan Walters. 

Farley explained that it is “more often the case than not” that the charter school board disapproves the first iteration of a school’s application. 

Washington D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a progressive advocacy group, praised the board’s decision.

“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,” Americans United CEO Rachel Laser said in a statement. “We will say it again: We urge the board to reject any application for a virtual charter school that includes a religious curriculum or engages in religion-based discrimination.”

Farley told CNA, however, that Oklahoma has “more favorable regulations” for charters than other states and that recent Supreme Court precedent gives the school’s backers “solid legal footing.” The cases to which Farley made reference, according to The Christian Post, are Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer (2017), Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue (2020), and David Carson et al. v. A. Pender Makin (2022).

Ahead of Tuesday’s ruling, Farley told NPR that the High Court’s decisions “all seem to be pointing in one direction, and that is that — as they’ve said and as they’ve said now three times — if a state has a program generally available that is state-funded, then they cannot prohibit a religious institution from participating in that program simply because they’re religious.”

The Oklahoman reported in December 2022 that then Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor and Solicitor General Zach West warned that state prohibitions against religious charter schools may be unconstitutional.

Citing the aforementioned SCOTUS precedent, O’Connor asserted that a state can’t selectively exclude private entities from receiving state funds for charter schools based on their religious status.

CNA’s Jonah McKeown predicted that “[w]hether the school is ultimately approved or whether its application is finally denied, there is likely to be litigation.