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“Religious Indoctrination”: Oklahoma Officials Approve Catholic Public School

“It’s hard to think of a clearer violation of the religious freedom of Oklahoma taxpayers,” one opponent said.

A state school board in Oklahoma has voted to approve what would be the nation’s first publicly funded religious school in a move that opponents, including the state’s attorney general, are saying is blatantly unconstitutional.

The application to form the school, an online public charter school that would serve K-12, was submitted by the Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma. The purpose of forming the school is very clearly aimed at spreading Christianity: in the “vision and purpose” section of the application, the Archdiocese wrote, “The Catholic school participates in the evangelizing mission of the Church and is the privileged environment in which Christian education is carried out.”

The Statewide Virtual Charter School Board approved the application for the St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School by a 3 to 2 vote on Monday. A similar application by the school was rejected unanimously in April. The revised and resubmitted application was approved on Monday after the Oklahoma House Speaker Charles McCall (R) appointed a new board member to replace a previous one at the last minute on Friday.

The decision was so extreme that the Republican Attorney General of the state, Gentner Drummond, condemned the approval as unconstitutional. “The approval of any publicly funded religious school is contrary to Oklahoma law and not in the best interest of taxpayers,” Drummond said. “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.”

Indeed, several organizations have threatened to sue over the decision. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Americans United for Separation of Church and State are preparing a joint lawsuit. The ACLU said the approval of the school violates the separation of church and state and that the approval of the school is akin to “religious indoctrination,” a comparison also made by Democratic state Rep. Mickey Dollens.

Americans United strongly condemned the decision. “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. This is a sea change for American democracy,” said Americans United CEO Rachel Laser in a statement. “State and federal law are clear: Charter schools are public schools that must be secular and open to all students.”

The Archdiocese argued that the school would be a private entity, despite the fact that it would be funded in part by taxpayer money. Gov. Kevin Stitt (R), who has taken multiple steps to suppress public educators’ ability to teach about inequality and to support religious schools in the state, called the vote a “win for religious liberty and education freedom.”

The approval is one of the first major public moves in the right’s quest to enshrine Christianity into public schooling, which Republicans and their dark money backers have been working to do for a number of years now.

As Substack newsletter Public Notice pointed out earlier this year, the right has already set the stage for the Supreme Court to uphold the approval of St. Isidore of Seville, citing cases that have already vastly eroded the separation of church and state.

In 2020, for instance, the Supreme Court decided that it is unconstitutional for Montana to grant certain funding to public schools but not religious schools — essentially forcing states to fund religious private schools. And, last year, the Supreme Court protected the ability of a public school football coach to lead his students in Christian prayer after games.

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