Oklahoma Supreme Court Hears Catholic Charter-School Case

Supporters of St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School argue that refusing to allow the school to operate as a charter school is religious discrimination.

Oklahoma Supreme Court
Oklahoma Supreme Court (photo: By Daniel Mayer - Own work / CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

The Oklahoma Supreme Court heard arguments on Tuesday for a case that will determine if the state can fund a Catholic charter school. 

The case, Drummond v. Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, follows the board’s decision to approve St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School. The school would become the nation’s first religious charter school.

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run education institutions that retain autonomy in how they are run while still being publicly accountable.

Republican Attorney General Gentner Drummond argued on Tuesday against the board’s approval of the school. In the lawsuit, filed in October 2023, Drummond argued that the school’s existence is an unconstitutional “harm to religious liberty” that sets a precedent that could require the state to fund a “public charter school teaching Sharia law.”  

In the lawsuit Drummond declared himself “duty-bound to file [the lawsuit] to protect religious liberty and prevent the type of state-funded religion that Oklahoma’s constitutional framers and the founders of our country sought to prevent.”

But supporters argue that refusing to allow the school to operate as a charter school is religious discrimination. 

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a legal organization dedicated to protecting religious freedom, free speech, parental rights, and the sanctity of life, will represent the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board. 

ADF attorneys argue that the state cannot discriminate against St. Isidore’s based on its religious background “by denying public funding to religious schools simply because they are religious.” 

ADF senior counsel Phil Sechler said in an April 1 statement that the U.S. Constitution and Oklahoma’s Religious Freedom Act “both protect St. Isidore’s freedom to operate according to its faith.” 

“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,” he continued.

“Oklahoma parents and children are better off with more choices, not fewer,” he added. 

The Oklahoma case happens in the larger context of the national “school-choice” debate and recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions in favor of religious freedom in education. For instance, a 2022 Supreme Court ruling found that Maine couldn’t exclude religious schools from a tuition-aid program. Meanwhile, other states have established voucher systems allowing tuition aid for students to attend private religious schools.  

Local Catholic Church leaders have expressed support for the school. Bishop David Konderla of the Diocese of Tulsa promoted the opening of the school as “fully Catholic in its curriculum and mission” in a March 5 letter

“It is the first religious charter school in the nation and will allow us to bring Catholic education to Catholic and non-Catholic students across Oklahoma at no cost to the families,” he continued. 

The school will be largely virtual, but leadership intends to seek out “partner parishes willing to serve as hubs for occasional gatherings of local students,” Bishop Konderla explained.

“This new education opportunity will give us the ability to reach families in all corners of our state, especially in rural areas of Oklahoma, which have limited or no Catholic educational options,” he added. “St. Isidore welcomes both Catholic and non-Catholic students who believe this model of education will be a great benefit to them.”

“Legal challenges still exist, but we remain strong in our pursuit of this worthy endeavor,” he noted.  

The ADF will also represent the Oklahoma School Board in a related case, the Oklahoma Parent Legislative Action Committee v. Statewide Virtual Charter School Board.

Oklahoma Supreme Court

Oklahoma Supreme Court Rules Against Catholic Charter School Proposal

In a dissent to the state high court’s majority opinion, Justice Dana Kuehn argued that St. Isidore’s would be a partner of the state, not a government entity, and thus the state denying funds to St. Isidore’s because it is religious would violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.