A Catholic school seeking state-funding in the midwestern state of Oklahoma has met further opposition, this time from four prominent Christians.
The school would be America’s first publicly funded religious school, which has raised fears that it will threaten the country’s time-honoured separation between church and state.
St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School, due to open in 2024, would undermine religious freedom in the state and lead to discrimination against non-religious students, if it were to receive government funding, say its opponents.
Other concerns include whether it would discriminate against LGBQT+ students and whether it would adequately provide for children with special needs. Fears have also been expressed regarding specific ideologies being sponsored by the state, for example in the past when indigenous people groups were ‘educated’ to assimilate and turn away from their native roots.
However the taxpayer-funded project is being supported by the state’s superintendent of public instruction, Ryan Walters, who said the lawsuit “discriminates against some Oklahomans due to their faith.”
Governor Kevin Stitt also voiced his support for the Catholic charter school. “Am I supportive of the Catholics going out and setting up a Catholic charter school? 100%. I think that’s great,” he said at a news conference in February, adding, “Just like I don’t shy away from my faith, I don’t expect anybody to shy away from their faith, either.”
The school is being supported by lawyers from Alliance Defending Freedom, who filed with the Oklahoma Supreme Court last week, opposing a petition filed by the state attorney general.
ADF Senior Counsel Phil Sechler says, “The board’s decision was informed by the Free Exercise Clause, which prohibits state officials from denying public funding to religious schools simply because they are religious.
"Oklahoma parents and children are better off with more choices, not fewer. The U.S. Constitution and Oklahoma’s Religious Freedom Act both protect St. Isidore’s freedom to operate according to its faith and the board’s decision to approve such learning options for Oklahoma families.
"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.”