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OK Supreme Court rules religious charter school is unconstitutional

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In a 6-2 decision issued on Tuesday, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that the nation’s first religious charter school is unconstitutional and violates state and federal law. Oklahoma’s Virtual Charter School Board approved the school, St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School, in June 2023. Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond then sued the Charter Board.

In issuing its opinion, the Court concluded:

Under Oklahoma law, a charter school is a public school. As such, a charter school must be nonsectarian. However, St. Isidore will evangelize the Catholic faith as part of its school curriculum while sponsored by the state. This state’s establishment of a religious charter school violates Oklahoma statutes, the Oklahoma Constitution, and the Establishment Clause. St. Isidore cannot justify its creation by invoking Free Exercise rights as a religious entity. St. Isidore came into existence through its charter with the state and will function as a component of the State’s public school system. This case turns on the State’s contracted-for religious teachings and activities through a new public charter school, not the State’s exclusion of a religious entity. The Constitution grants the extraordinary declaratory relief sought by the State. The St. Isidore Contract violates state and federal law and is unconstitutional. By writ of mandamus, we direct the Charter School Board to rescind its contract with St. Isidore.

In response to the Court’s ruling, Eric Paisner, the acting CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, released this statement:

The National Alliance applauds the Oklahoma Supreme Court for affirming the unconstitutionality of religious public schools. The Oklahoma Supreme Court’s 6-2 decision is a resounding victory for the integrity of public education

All charter schools are public schools. The National Alliance firmly believes charter schools, like all other public schools, may not be religious institutions. We insist every charter school student must be given the same federal and state civil rights and constitutional protections as their district school peers. The Oklahoma Supreme Court’s decision reassures all Oklahoma families that their students’ constitutional rights are not sacrificed when they choose to attend a public charter school.

The National Alliance thanks Attorney General Drummond and his team for their tremendous work.  The National Alliance and our partners will continue to stand with people of Oklahoma who are fighting to uphold the constitution and preserve public education.

What’s next?

St. Isidore, which planned to open this fall, is expected to appeal the Court’s decision. Archbishop Paul Coakley, Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, and Bishop David Konderla, Diocese of Tulsa, issued a joint statement saying they would “consider all legal options.”

Analysis of the Court’s ruling, published by Education Next, indicates this case is just the “opening salvo” in debate over religious charter schools: “Even if no appeal is made in this case or if the Supreme Court declines to hear one, the thorny issues that the majority elided will come up again and need to be resolved.”

Read more

See coverage from AP, The Hill, USA Today, and The 74. View the Court’s opinion.

*This post has been updated since its original publication.