Oklahoma Supreme Court hears Catholic charter school case

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CNA Staff, Apr 2, 2024 / 17:35 pm

The Oklahoma Supreme Court heard arguments on Tuesday for a case that will determine if the state can fund a Catholic charter school. 

The case, Drummond v. Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, follows the board’s decision to approve St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School. The school would become the nation’s first religious charter school.

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run education institutions that retain autonomy in how they are run while still being publicly accountable.

Republican Attorney General Gentner Drummond argued on Tuesday against the board’s approval of the school. In the lawsuit, filed in October 2023, Drummond argued that the school’s existence is an unconstitutional “harm to religious liberty” that sets a precedent that could require the state to fund a “public charter school teaching Sharia Law.”  

In the lawsuit Drummond declared himself “duty bound to file [the lawsuit] to protect religious liberty and prevent the type of state-funded religion that Oklahoma’s constitutional framers and the founders of our country sought to prevent.”

But supporters argue that refusing to allow the school to operate as a charter school is religious discrimination. 

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a legal organization dedicated to protecting religious freedom, free speech, parental rights, and the sanctity of life, will represent the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board. 

ADF attorneys argue that the state cannot discriminate against St. Isidore’s based on its religious background “by denying public funding to religious schools simply because they are religious.” 

ADF senior counsel Phil Sechler said in an April 1 statement that the U.S. Constitution and Oklahoma’s Religious Freedom Act “both protect St. Isidore’s freedom to operate according to its faith.” 

“We urge the state’s high court to reject this legal challenge that discriminates against religion and affirm the constitutionally protected rights of religious groups to be treated the same as their secular counterparts,” he continued.

“Oklahoma parents and children are better off with more choices, not fewer,” he added. 

The Oklahoma case happens in the larger context of the national “school choice” debate and recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions in favor of religious freedom in education. For instance, a 2022 Supreme Court ruling found that Maine couldn’t exclude religious schools from a tuition aid program. Meanwhile, other states have established voucher systems allowing tuition aid for students to attend private religious schools.  

Local Catholic Church leaders have expressed support for the school. Bishop David Konderla of the Diocese of Tulsa promoted the opening of the school as “fully Catholic in its curriculum and mission” in a March 5 letter

“It is the first religious charter school in the nation and will allow us to bring Catholic education to Catholic and non-Catholic students across Oklahoma at no cost to the families,” he continued. 

The school will be largely virtual, but leadership intends to seek out “partner parishes willing to serve as hubs for occasional gatherings of local students,” Konderla explained.

“This new education opportunity will give us the ability to reach families in all corners of our state, especially in rural areas of Oklahoma, which have limited or no Catholic educational options,” he added. “St. Isidore welcomes both Catholic and non-Catholic students who believe this model of education will be a great benefit to them.”

“Legal challenges still exist, but we remain strong in our pursuit of this worthy endeavor,” he noted.  

The ADF will also represent the Oklahoma School Board in a related case, the Oklahoma Parent Legislative Action Committee v. Statewide Virtual Charter School Board.


Kate Quiñones

Kate Quiñones is a staff writer for Catholic News Agency and a fellow of the College Fix. She has been published by the Wall Street Journal, the Denver Catholic Register, and CatholicVote, and she graduated from Hillsdale College. She lives in Colorado with her husband.

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