Oklahoma’s newly elected attorney general has withdrawn an advisory opinion of his predecessor’s and cautioned the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board against sponsoring what would be the nation’s first religious charter school.
The Catholic Church in Oklahoma is seeking government sanctioning and taxpayer funds for St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School, which it wants to open to serve students in towns without Catholic schools and to expand online course offerings to students in existing Catholic schools.
The matter could be decided by the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board at its next meeting in March.
Gentner Drummond, who was sworn in as attorney general in January, issued a letter Thursday saying his predecessor was wrong to issue legal advice in December that served as a green light for Oklahoma Catholic leaders to submit the proposal.
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First, Drummond said the request for a legal opinion should have been rejected in the first place because it came from the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board’s executive director rather from the governing board itself after a majority vote in favor of making such a request.
Second, Drummond said then-Attorney General John O’Connor’s opinion that the state’s current ban on publicly funded charter schools being operated by sectarian and religious organizations could be a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment “and therefore should not be enforced” was based not on legal precedent involving public schools but rather private schools. And he said Oklahoma law defines and the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office has previously recognized charter schools only as public schools.
Lastly, Drummond said sponsoring a religious charter school run by one denomination would “create a slippery slope.”
“Religious liberty is one of our most fundamental freedoms,” Drummond wrote in a letter to the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board. “It allows us to worship according to our faith, and to be free from any duty that may conflict with our faith. The Opinion as issued by my predecessor misuses the concept of religious liberty by employing it as a means to justify state-funded religion.
“While many Oklahomans undoubtedly support charter schools sponsored by various Christian faiths, the precedent created by approval of the … application will compel approval of similar applications by all faiths,” Drummond continued.
“I doubt most Oklahomans would want their tax dollars to fund a religious school whose tenets are diametrically opposed to their own faith.
“Unfortunately, the approval of a charter school by one faith will compel the approval of charter schools by all faiths, even those most Oklahomans would consider reprehensible and unworthy of public funding.”
Board Chairman Robert Franklin said he could only speak for himself and not for the entire board, but he said his reaction to Thursday’s development was one of gratitude.
“What I have been prayerful about is that light would be shown that would add clarity because this has been weighing heavily on me,” said Franklin, who works as an administrator at Tulsa Technology Center. “We will continue to do our due diligence on this.”