Publicly-funded Catholic school in Oklahoma subject of new lawsuit – USA TODAY

A long-expected lawsuit has arrived to fight the creation of the country’s first religious charter school.
The case, filed Monday in Oklahoma County District Court, kicks off likely years of litigation to examine the possibility of publicly funded religious schools, starting with St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School.
The Oklahoma Parent Legislative Action Committee, a non-partisan public school advocacy group, joins nine other parents, faith leaders and public education advocates in filing the lawsuit. They contend a Catholic charter school would contradict state law and asked a district judge to block St. Isidore of Seville from opening and receiving state funds.
“You can’t use people’s tax dollars to promote or establish religion,” one of the plaintiffs, the Rev. Lori Walke, told The Oklahoman. “That’s what is being attempted right now.”
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Catholic officials contend charter schools are private schools, despite their reliance on taxpayer dollars, and a faith-based institution shouldn’t be excluded from the state’s charter-school funding. Critics argue the concept of a government-funded religious school violates the separation of church and state and could result in discrimination against certain groups.
The plaintiffs are represented by local attorneys and national groups — the American Civil Liberties Union, the Freedom from Religion Foundation and Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU).
The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa plan to open the school in 2024 to provide a Catholic education online to students in all parts of the state.
“News of a suit from AU comes as no surprise since they have indicated early in this process their intentions to litigate,” said Brett Farley, a lobbyist representing the diocese and archdiocese. “We remain confident that the Oklahoma court will ultimately agree with the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in favor of religious liberty.”
The nation’s high court recently ruled private schools could receive public funds from school voucher programs and government grants. Attorney General Gentner Drummond, disagreeing with his predecessor John O’Connor, argued these cases have “little precedential value” to charter school law and no legal history exists to prove charter schools are private.
St. Isidore of Seville, named for the patron saint of the internet, would be a “genuine instrument” of the Catholic Church and would take part in the church’s evangelizing mission, according to the school’s own description. The Catholic Pastoral Center in Oklahoma City would serve as its headquarters, and Archbishop Paul S. Coakley and Bishop David A. Konderla would choose the members of St. Isidore’s governing board.
The Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board drew national attention when it voted 3-2 in June to approve the school’s creation.
The board’s chairperson, Robert Franklin, said a lawsuit over the vote, though expected, is troubling news.
“Although it’s not a surprise, it’s unsettling because I think it puts Oklahoma taxpayers and the process under the microscope,” said Franklin, who was one of the two board members to vote against opening St. Isidore.
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The board agreed to exempt the school from state and federal laws that contradict Catholic beliefs, raising questions of whether the school would abide by all the non-discrimination regulations other publicly funded schools have to follow.
St. Isidore will operate according to church beliefs on sexual orientation, gender identity and sexual morality, according to the archdiocese’s application to the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board.
One of the plaintiffs, Oklahoma County mother Michelle Medley, fears the school would refuse to serve her child who identifies as LGBTQ+, according to the lawsuit. Two of Medley’s three children have autism, and given the family’s history with private schools, she believes St. Isidore would be “woefully unprepared” to serve students with disabilities.
“Allowing St. Isidore to operate as a state-funded, public charter school would subject other Oklahoma children — at taxpayer expense — to the private-school experiences that failed her family,” the lawsuit contends.
Catholic officials have said students of all backgrounds would be welcome at St. Isidore, and the archdiocese is prepared to educate children with special learning needs, given its experience operating more than 20 Catholic schools statewide.
Dedicating any of Oklahoma’s finite education funds to a religious school would leave fewer dollars for secular public schools who accept all students, said Walke, senior minister of Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ in Oklahoma City.
The archdiocese estimates the school will cost more than $26 million in its first five years of operation.
“My concern is any money, any funds that are taken out of our public schools means that it limits opportunities for our community when you can say, ‘No, I won’t take you based on how you look or the way you act (or) your belief system,’” Walke said.


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