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Dispute expected over Oklahoma ruling on state-funded Roman Catholic school

23 June 2023

Alamy

The Republican Governor of Oklahoma, Kevin Stitt, pictured earlier this month. He described the vote as “a win for religious liberty and education freedom in our great state”

The Republican Governor of Oklahoma, Kevin Stitt, pictured earlier this month. He described the vote as “a win for religious liberty and education fre...

A LEGAL challenge is expected after the approval, by an Oklahoma school board, of the first state-funded religious charter school in the United States.

At a meeting on Monday of last week, the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board voted by three to two to approve St Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School. In effect, this will enable the use of public funds to pay for the tuition of children attending the school, which is an online institution run by the archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the diocese of Tulsa.

The Republican Governor of Oklahoma, Kevin Stitt, described the vote as “a win for religious liberty and education freedom in our great state”. But the Republican Attorney General, Gentner Drummond, said that it was “extremely disappointing that board members violated their oath in order to fund religious schools with our tax dollars. In doing so, these members have exposed themselves and the state to potential legal action that could be costly.”

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has said that it plans to “take all possible legal action to fight this decision and defend the separation of Church and State that’s promised in both the Oklahoma and US Constitutions”.

Members of the school board have “emphasized repeatedly that they were not voting on the constitutionality of such a school, but only whether the application met the board’s standards”, Reuters reported. Church officials had expressed hope that the case would reach the Supreme Court, “where a 6-3 conservative majority has taken an expansive view of religious rights”.

The controversy is taking place against a wider backdrop of demand for school choice. In an interview with the National Catholic Register, Brett Farley, the executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma, spoke of a “great awakening largely among parents” in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic: the polling across party lines in the state evidence approval by 75 per cent or more for increased school-choice options.

Also shaping the educational landscape is conflict over the content of school curricula. PEN America reported last year that, between January and September 2021, 24 legislatures in the United States had introduced 54 separate Bills “intended to restrict teaching and training in K-12 schools [from the age of five to 18], higher education, and state agencies and institutions. The majority of these Bills target discussions of race, racism, gender, and American history, banning a series of ‘prohibited’ or ‘divisive’ concepts for teachers and trainers operating in K-12 schools, public universities, and workplace settings.”

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