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State school board approves application for first publicly funded religious charter school in the nation


By Taylor Romine and Elizabeth Joseph, CNN

(CNN) — A school board in Oklahoma has approved an application for a Catholic virtual charter school – a decision that would create the first publicly funded religious charter school in the nation – despite concerns over the plan’s constitutionality.

The Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board voted 3 to 2 on Monday to approve an application for the St. Isidore of Seville Virtual Catholic Charter School, an online public school that would be administered by the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt applauded the board’s decision, calling it “a win for religious liberty and education freedom in our great state.”

“Oklahomans support religious liberty for all and support an increasingly innovative educational system that expands choice. Today, with the nation watching, our state showed that we will not stand for religious discrimination,” Stitt said in a statement.

But Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond said the decision was unconstitutional and legal action will likely follow if a contract for the school is signed.

“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.

“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,” he said.

During Monday’s three-hour meeting, board members debated the constitutionality of approving the decision, but decided to move forward and cast their votes. John Meiser, managing director for domestic litigation at the University of Notre Dame’s Religious Liberty Clinic, said there is precedent that the school should be approved – even with its religious affiliation.

“The Supreme Court has repeatedly made clear, three times in the last six years alone, that programs just like this cannot exclude religious organizations from participating. That is just fundamental First Amendment federal constitutional law,” said Meiser, who assisted in the application for the school.

The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City is “elated that the board agreed with our argument and application for the nation’s first religious charter school,” spokesperson Avery Holt told CNN in a statement.

“Parents continue to demand more options for their kids, and we are committed to help provide them.”

Brett Farley, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma, which handles all government affairs and policy related issues for the two Catholic dioceses in the state, said supporters of the school are ready to take on potential legal battles.

“Public dollars currently go to all kinds of religious institutions, whether they’re education institutions in the form of tax credits, or vouchers, or something like that, but also hospitals and all kinds of religiously sponsored public benefit institutions,” he said.

“FEMA relied heavily on Catholic Charities, Baptist relief services, and all sorts of things, and so that’s just a long tradition in American history. So to suggest that somehow this is anathema and unconstitutional is to pose another question … where do you draw the line?”

But opponents of the plan insist it is unconstitutional and a break with history.

“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, Rachel Laser, president and CEO of the nonprofit Americans United for Separation of Church and State, 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 U.S. Constitutions.”

The proposed school is now required to submit its approved application, a contract, and other documents to the Oklahoma Department of Education to finalize the process, according to information posted by the board.

State Superintendent Ryan Walters said in a statement Monday that he supports the board’s decision.

There are two dozen charter schools across Oklahoma, according to the state’s Department of Education.

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