Oklahoma’s Approval of America’s First-Ever Religious Charter School Is Cause for Celebration
Religious pluralism, Free Exercise Clause of First Amendment outweigh concerns of critics
On June 5, the Oklahoma Virtual Charter School Board voted, 3-2, to approve the initial application of the first religious charter school in the nation, St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School. The vote clears the way for the Board to authorize the school, which is a joint effort of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa that will serve students throughout the state as early as fall 2024. The application makes clear that St. Isidore will be a Catholic school, top to bottom. The dioceses do not hide the ball: Their goal is to bring a high-quality, authentically Catholic, education to students who would otherwise lack access to it in a large rural state with many underserved communities.
The board’s decision marks a pivotal moment in the history of American education. All states require charter schools to be “nonsectarian” in their operations, and most—including Oklahoma—also prohibit them from being operated by, or affiliated with, a religious organization. In December 2022, however, the Oklahoma attorney general, John O’Connor, issued an opinion letter concluding that these prohibitions likely violate the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause. O’Connor’s letter cleared the way for St. Isidore’s application in January 2023. (Since then, O’Connor’s successor as attorney general, Gentner Drummond, has withdrawn O’Connor’s letter and made clear that he opposes St. Isidore’s application on state constitutional grounds.)
Nicole Stelle Garnett is the John P. Murphy Foundation professor of law at University of Notre Dame and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
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