Oklahoma board rejects first taxpayer-funded religious school in America

April 11 (Reuters) – An Oklahoma school board on Tuesday rejected an application by the Catholic Church to create a taxpayer-funded religious charter school in the United States – a decision that will spark a legal battle testing the idea of ​​separation of church and state.

The application was to create Saint Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School, planned by its organizers to provide online education to 500 students through high school and eventually 1,500. The church has 30 days to make revisions to its application in areas the committee focused on during Tuesday’s discussion.

The Statewide Virtual Charter School Board is a state agency that reviews applications for charter schools — publicly funded but independently operated — that operate in Oklahoma. All members of the committee were appointed by Republican state officials.

St. Any legal battle over Isidore could test the scope of the “establishment clause” of the US Constitution’s First Amendment, which restricts government officials from advocating any particular religion or promoting a non-religion.

Supporters and critics of the proposed school predicted a legal battle regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s vote. Church officials have said they hope the case will reach the U.S. Supreme Court, where the 6-3 conservative majority has taken a broader view of religious rights, including two rulings from 2020 involving schools in Maine and Montana.

Its organizers said it will cost Oklahoma taxpayers $25.7 million in its first five years. The idea for the school came from the Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. The law school at the University of Notre Dame, a Catholic institution in Indiana, assisted with the application.

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Bret Farley, executive director of the Oklahoma Catholic Conference, said St. Isidore aims to meet the needs of rural families who want a Catholic education but don’t live near any physical schools.

Farley, who represents the church on public policy issues, said he is optimistic that recent Supreme Court rulings will allow the justices to eventually allow publicly funded Catholic charter schools.

Critics of the proposal worry about the consequences of allowing taxpayer-funded religious schools.

“Americans need to wake up to the reality that religious extremists are coming into our public schools,” said Rachel Lazer, president of the advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

How the school balances federal and state nondiscrimination laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation remains an open question. The school’s goal in its application is to hire educators who live by the doctrine of the Catholic Church, which considers homosexuality a sin according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Farley said he could not answer questions about hypothetical cases such as hiring a gay teacher or admitting a gay student, but expressed confidence that the school could “operate within the protections given to us by state regulations, federal regulations and precedent.”

“This idea of ​​separation of church and state is unconstitutional, it’s nowhere in the text of the Constitution,” Farley said.

Lazer disagreed, and said his organization would fight the Catholic Church against St. Isidore and other publicly funded religious schools in any court.

“There is an attack on public schools in Oklahoma, and that attack is about turning public schools into religious schools,” Lazer said.

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Reporting by Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas; Additional reporting by John Kruzel in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham, Donna Bryson and Jonathan Otis

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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