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Oklahoma: Call to block first US public-funded Catholic school

by Heather Preston
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America’s first publicly funded religious school has faced a legal challenge, as parents, clergy and lobby groups say it violates the state’s constitution.

A lawsuit has been filed against an Oklahoma school board, in a bid to stop the opening of the nation’s first tax-funded Catholic school on the grounds that it is an assault on the separation of church and state.

In June, the Oklahoma school board approved an application for charter-school sponsorship for St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School. A document, filed this week in the court of Oklahoma argues public funding for the charter school goes against the constitution and threatens to discriminate against non-Catholics, LGBTQ+ students and other minority groups through its educational content and ethos and admissions.

The Statewide Virtual Charter School Board is being sued for approving the school’s sponsorship application.

The complaint states that “the defining feature of America’s public schools is that they must welcome and serve all students, regardless of a student’s background, beliefs, or abilities. Oklahoma embraces this core principle in its constitution”.

“Schools that do not adhere to this principle have long existed and are entitled to operate, but they cannot be part of the public-education system. Permitting otherwise would upend the legal framework Oklahoma has constructed to govern public schools and protect students.”

The Oklahoma Parent Legislative Action Committee claim the school is discriminatory in its admissions, discipline, and employment “based on religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, and other protected characteristics” and fails to provide “adequate services to students with disabilities”. 

St. Isidore, which is set to open in 2024, has also been accused of seeking to “indoctrinate” students through its Christian teaching. Plaintiffs - including United Church of Christ minister Rev. Lori Walke, argue the provision of religious education under the Archdioceses Department of Catholic Education and the school’s description as a “place of evangelisation” should not be funded by tax dollars.

The lawsuit asks the court to stop the public funding of the school.
Catholic officials have stated that students of all backgrounds would be welcome at St. Isidore, and the archdiocese is adequately equipped to support those with special learning needs.

Brett Farley, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma told the Associated Press the lawsuit came as “no surprise” and that he remained confident “the Oklahoma court will ultimately agree with the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in favour of religious liberty".


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