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A Religious Public Charter School in Oklahoma? Not on Our Watch.

A shot of an empty corridor in a high school.
A charter school approved by state officials would unlawfully discriminate and teach a religious curriculum. We’re suing.
A shot of an empty corridor in a high school.
Daniel Mach,
ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief
Heather L. Weaver,
Senior Staff Attorney,
ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief
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July 31, 2023

A religious school can’t be a public school, and a public school can’t be religious. These fundamental legal tenets have long protected both the integrity of our public-education system, which serves all students, and the right of private religious schools to indoctrinate students in accordance with a particular faith. In approving a Catholic public charter school, however, Oklahoma officials are not just blurring these lines separating church and state; they’re attempting to completely eviscerate them. We’re suing to put a stop to it.

Oklahoma’s public-school system includes both brick-and-mortar and virtual charter schools. State statutory provisions and the state constitution require these schools and all other public schools to remain open to all students — regardless of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, religion, LGBTQ status, disability, or any other characteristic — and to teach a non-religious curriculum. St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School will do neither. Nevertheless, in June, the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, which authorizes and sponsors online charter schools, approved St. Isidore’s application, setting the school up to receive taxpayer funds and operate as a government entity.

In its application, St. Isidore asserts that it will be managed by the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and will participate “in the evangelizing mission of the Church.” To that end, the school’s application makes clear that it will discriminate in admissions and student discipline, as necessary to satisfy the Catholic Church’s religious beliefs. This means that students could be denied admission or punished based on their religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or other failures to comply with Catholic doctrine. St. Isidore even refused to certify that it will not discriminate against students with disabilities if accommodating a student would violate Catholic beliefs. The school also plans to discriminate in employment.

Not surprisingly, St. Isidore’s curriculum will be thoroughly religious, as “the School fully embraces the teachings of the Catholic Church” and will incorporate these teachings “into every aspect of the School,” including all subjects taught and all activities offered. The school aims to ensure all students know and believe that:

  • “among all creatures, the human person is the only one created in God’s image with the ability to know and love God, and that God created persons male and female”;
  • “because of sin humanity was separated from God, but in God’s love He has provided a path to salvation through the saving power of Christ, the second person of the Trinity, in His suffering, death and resurrection”; and
  • “human persons are destined for eternal life with the Holy Trinity but that in freedom, an individual may reject God’s invitation and by this definitive self-exclusion end up in hell.”

A private religious school is, of course, well within its rights to teach these lessons. And churches are free to inculcate these beliefs in Sunday school. But they are wildly unconstitutional in public schools. Indeed, the mere notion of a religious public school is a constitutional oxymoron. This would be true for any proposed religious charter school — whether imposing Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, or any other faith on students. Government institutions cannot be religious entities, and that is what St. Isidore is. Even Oklahoma’s Republican attorney general has said that approving St. Isidore as a charter school is unlawful and has vowed to fight it.

Allowing St. Isidore to operate as planned would transform Oklahoma’s public schools into tools of discrimination and religious indoctrination. And, as the first religious public school in the nation, it could inspire copycats in other states, with grave consequences. It would threaten to severely undermine public education, a cornerstone of our democracy, while infringing the religious freedom of students, families, and taxpayers.

Our lawsuit, filed today in Oklahoma state court with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Education Law Center, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, takes a stand against the insidious efforts to co-opt public schools for private, religious interests. We represent Oklahoma faith leaders, parents, and public-education advocates who have had enough. Public schools are not Sunday schools, and we and our allies will fight to keep it that way.

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