© 2024 KOSU
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Oklahoma board approves proposed contract for nation’s first publicly funded religious school

 The Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board convenes for its Oct. 9, 2023 meeting.
Beth Wallis
StateImpact Oklahoma
The Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board convenes for its Oct. 9, 2023 meeting.

The nation’s first publicly funded religious school got one step closer to becoming a reality Monday after the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board approved its contract Monday for the St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual Charter School.

The vote was split along usual 3-2 lines, with board members Nellie Sanders, Scott Strawn and Brian Bobek voting for the approval, and member Bill Pearson and Board Chair Robert Franklin voting against.

The contract contains terms and conditions for school operations, hiring practices, financial management, and other stipulations for opening.

Franklin has voted against St. Isidore’s establishment from the beginning, citing looming constitutional questions, concerns over whether St. Isidore has shown it can provide adequate services to students with disabilities, that its relationship with its educational management organization — against state statute — appears to be commingled, and whether the original vote to accept St. Isidore’s application was even valid due to a voting member’s term not starting yet.

“This is about trying to find this pathway of how the state constitution and the nation’s constitution find a way to live together,” Franklin said at Monday’s meeting. “I am very concerned about, you know, the oath that I took, just like everybody else, to uphold the State Charter Schools Act and the state’s constitution. It’s very, very problematic. It does not align well.”

The approval of St. Isidore’s application this summer set off a firestorm of national controversy. Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond, who advised the board against approving the application, is not representing the board on the matter because of that decision.

Drummond withdrew the previous opinion on the issue from his predecessor, John O’Connor, who had opined that recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings set a legal precedent clearing the path for St. Isidore.

“[O’Connor’s previous opinion] misuses the concept of religious liberty by employing it as a means to justify state-funded religion,” Drummond wrote in his decision. “If allowed to remain in force, I fear the opinion will be used as a basis for taxpayer-funded religious schools, which is precisely what [St. Isidore] seeks to become.”

Oklahoma law forbids the teaching of sectarian or religious doctrine at public charter schools: “A charter school shall be nonsectarian in its programs, admission policies, employment practices, and all other operations. A sponsor may not authorize a charter school or program that is affiliated with a nonpublic sectarian school or religious institution.”

In July, the board was also sued for its decision by the Oklahoma Parent Legislative Action Committee, along with parents and other stakeholders. Americans for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Education Law Center and Freedom From Religion Foundation are litigating the suit.

The lawsuit calls for an injunction against the school’s opening, alleging the board violated the state constitution, the Oklahoma Charter Schools Act and the board’s own regulations when it approved St. Isidore’s application in June. The suit is currently working its way through the courts, and a hearing is set for Dec. 21.

What’s in the contract?

Should it be accepted by St. Isidore, the contract’s commencement date is July 1, 2024 with an automatic termination date of June 30, 2029.

The contract makes several mentions of how St. Isidore’s religious status may interact with the state’s constitution.

Under the term “Religious Protections,” the contract asserts these protections exist under the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the First Amendment to the Constitution, and the state constitution under what is known as the “ministerial exception,” in which religious employers are shielded from certain workplace bias lawsuits even when they might violate anti-discrimination laws.

The contract says, “actions by the Charter School that are inconsistent with [existing state and federal laws], but nonetheless within the Charter School’s rights under the Religious Protections shall not be deemed a violation of this contract.”

Additionally, “if the Charter School is a religious nonprofit organization, it has the right to freely exercise its religious beliefs and practices consistent with its Religious Protections. If, on the other hand, the Charter School is not a religious nonprofit organization entitled to the Religious Protections, it shall be nonsectarian in its programs, admission policies, employment practices and all other operations.”

As for student services, St. Isidore is tasked with providing “any additional equipment or technological aids to students with disabilities as necessary to ensure equal access to the Charter School’s program of instruction in accordance with the student’s [Individualized Education Plan] or Section 504 plan.”

Despite concerns of discrimination against students’ families and employees of the school, the contract says it cannot deny students themselves admission on the basis of “race, color, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, disability, age, proficiency in the English language, religious preference or lack thereof, income, aptitude or academic ability.”

The full contract can be viewed here.

* indicates required

Beth Wallis is StateImpact Oklahoma's education reporter.
StateImpact Oklahoma
KOSU is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.
Related Content