Oklahoma officials deny Catholic public charter bid, for now

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Oklahoma authorities punted on a Catholic-led bid to open the country’s first publicly funded religious charter school on Tuesday, delaying a landmark decision that is eventually expected to spur a court fight over constitutional limits between church and state.

A state charter school board voted against approving an application to open a public campus that teaches students religious tenets just like a private institution. But the decision gives church leaders time to address board members’ concerns, then refile their request before a new and final vote in several weeks.

A string of faith leaders, elected officials and public school advocates urged board members to reject the proposal on Tuesday, drawing a rebuke from recently elected state Superintendent Ryan Walters.

“Funding Catholic charter schools would be unfair to taxpayers who do not share these Catholic religious beliefs,” said Clark Frailey, a co-founder of the Pastors for Oklahoma Kids public education advocacy organization, to board members as they met in Oklahoma City.

“Taxpayers will be subsidizing the indoctrination of students to a belief system that condemns their own religious faith, or lack thereof,” he said.

Walters, a nonvoting member of the charter board, pushed board members to approve the application.

“You all have heard from a lot of different folks, and you’ve heard from some radical leftists that their hatred for the Catholic Church aligns them [against] doing what’s best for kids,” Walters said. “We should distance ourselves from allowing radicals to inject their way into this and overly politicize this decision.”

Catholic Church officials formally asked Oklahoma’s virtual charter school board early this year to open the St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School, accelerating months of debate overgovernment support for sectarian education that has divided educators and Republicans.

Two Oklahoma attorneys general have issued divided, but nonbinding, opinions on the issue. Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt and Walters have supported the church’s application.

Stitt in February declared his “strong disagreement” with Republican Attorney General Gentner Drummond’s decision to scrap a landmark legal opinion that opened the door to publicly funded religious charter schools and also staked a claim in a legal fight over charters that could be addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

But a last-minute memorandum from the charter board’s attorney delivered just before Tuesday’s scheduled vote warned that Oklahoma’s Constitution prohibits the use of public funds for religious or sectarian purposes, and said church officials could resubmit their application for reconsideration within 30 days of receiving formal word of its denial.

With their initial denial on Tuesday, charter board members asked the church to resolve questions about its special education programs, pedagogical approach, funding and governance structure — plus the legal arguments it believes supports its case to open.

Yet as the Supreme Court weighs taking up a separate court case with significant ramifications for the country’s charter school system, an eventual final vote is expected to prompt a fresh lawsuit from the project’s supporters or opponents.

“If we ultimately prevail, it changes education entirely across the country,” Brett Farley, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma told POLITICO last month.

“For some reason, because of this specious separation of church and state idea that’s not in the Constitution, we think somehow that we’ve got to have some sort of quasi-monopolistic setup in the educational market. And we do that to the detriment of our kids.”

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