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Oklahoma Approves Nation’s First Public Religious Charter School

The “In the States” feature by Kaitlyn Brennan is a weekly update to keep members informed on state-level activities impacting the education and educator preparation community.

Last week, Oklahoma state officials approved a bid to open the country’s first publicly funded religious charter school. In a statement, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt praised the decision, saying in part, “Oklahomans support religious liberty for all and support an increasingly innovative educational system that expands choice … Today, with the nation watching, our state showed that we will not stand for religious discrimination.”

The application for the Catholic-led bid was originally shot down in April — but the timing afforded church leaders the opportunity to address the state charter board members’ concerns and then refile a request before last week’s vote. Brett Farley, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma, in a statement said: “We are elated that the board agreed with our argument and application for the nation’s first religious charter school … Parents continue to demand more options for their kids, and we are committed to help provide them.”

However, several faith leaders, elected officials, and public school advocates have expressed significant concern, not only for this ruling’s impact across Oklahoma, but for the broader implications of such a landmark decision.

“It’s hard to think of a clearer violation of the religious freedom of Oklahoma taxpayers and public-school families than the state establishing the nation’s first religious public charter school … This is a sea change for American democracy … In a country built on the principle of separation of church and state, public schools must never be allowed to become Sunday schools,” said Rachel Laser, head of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond also expressed concern saying, “The approval of any publicly funded religious school is contrary to Oklahoma law and not in the best interest of taxpayers … It’s 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.”

The decision is all but certain to spark a number of lawsuits challenging the vote.