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ACLU files suit to block the country's first religious public charter school


The ACLU and some parents in Oklahoma have filed a lawsuit to stop a religious charter school from opening in that state.


The all-virtual Roman Catholic school would be funded by Oklahoma taxpayers. A state board approved the plan. Opponents say government funding for a religious school is clearly unconstitutional. And the case could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

MARTÍNEZ: Reporter Beth Wallis with StateImpact Oklahoma has been following this story. Beth, how did the state board justify approving public funding for a religious school?

BETH WALLIS, BYLINE: So St. Isidore is the patron saint of the internet. And the St. Isidore of Seville Statewide Catholic Virtual Charter School would be a K-12 all-virtual school. It was approved by Oklahoma's statewide virtual charter school board in a split 3-2 vote. And actually, our state's attorney general has called the legitimacy of that vote into question due to the timing of the vote and whether a newly appointed board member had officially started his term, so still some validity of the vote questions standing there.

But the reasons that those board members give who voted yes, they say it was a vote for religious liberty. School choice is also a really hot topic in Oklahoma, as with a lot of the rest of the country. And by school choice, I mean subsidizing more private education with public dollars. This wave of school choice policy has really hit Oklahoma, and St. Isidore is certainly a part of that.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, the ACLU and others say that this violates the separation of church and state. What's the main argument there?

WALLIS: So the plaintiffs' lawyers argue that students whose identities might conflict with the teachings of the Catholic Church could potentially be discriminated against. Dan Mach is the director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. He says the schools would be in violation of numerous state laws.

DAN MACH: Among other things, these basic rules, which apply to anyone seeking to start a charter school, bar these schools from discriminating and prevent them from imposing religious views on students. Yet the state board approved the application by a 3-2 vote on June 5 against the legal advice even of the state's Republican attorney general, who has unequivocally said that the approval of this school is unlawful.

WALLIS: You know, and in its application, St. Isidore even said that it would be evangelizing to students. I'd also say, the lawyers definitely point out they're worried that students with certain disabilities won't be receiving an adequate level of support that they need, especially because St. Isidore will have no in-person component to help those students who might need that. Other virtual schools in Oklahoma have that hybrid model for those students.

MARTÍNEZ: So what are the supporters of the charter school saying about the lawsuits?

WALLIS: Well, they're definitely hoping that it'll eventually end up at the Supreme Court and that the conservative majority will be on their side. Our state superintendent of public instruction, Ryan Walters, he's been an ardent supporter of school choice. He's also a nonvoting member of that charter school board. He says St. Isidore's establishment is a move to, quote, "end atheism as the state-sponsored religion." He sees the suit as an attack against religious liberty. The school is supposed to open next fall, though, obviously, there are a lot of legal challenges. And that could throw the timeline out the window.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Beth Wallis is a reporter with Oklahoma StateImpact. Beth, thanks for your reporting.

WALLIS: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Beth Wallis
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