[Fox News] Oklahoma’s state-funded Catholic charter school hit with lawsuit from parents, religious leaders

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Oklahoma set the stage for legal battles after the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board approved the first taxpayer-funded, faith-based charter school with a 3-2 vote in June. Monday, the speculated legal battles came to fruition as a public education nonprofit, parents and faith leaders joined forces to stop the nation’s anticipated first publicly-funded religious charter school.

The board and its members are among those listed as defendants, according to The Associated Press.

“Creating a religious public charter school is not religious freedom,” Rev. Lori Walke, one of the plaintiffs involved in the case and a senior minister at Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City, said, per the report.

“Our churches already have the religious freedom to start our own schools if we choose to do so. And parents already have the freedom to send their children to those religious schools. But when we entangle religious schools to the government … we endanger religious freedom for all of us,” she continued.

OKLAHOMA APPROVES FIRST TAXPAYER-FUNDED RELIGIOUS SCHOOL, SETTING STAGE FOR LEGAL BATTLES

The virtual charter school’s June 5 vote authorized the Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City to establish the St. Isidore of Seville Virtual Catholic Charter School as an online public charter school, sparking immediate backlash from some.

Among groups representing the case’s plaintiffs is Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a nonprofit group that advocates to keep religious content and practices out of government. ACLU, Education Law Center and Freedom From Religion Foundation are co-counsel, the organization told Fox News Digital.

When reached for comment, Americans United for Separation of Church and State referred Fox News Digital to a press release containing comments from its CEO Rachel Laser.

“A school that claims to be simultaneously public and religious would be a sea change for American democracy. It’s hard to think of a clearer violation of the religious freedom of Oklahoma taxpayers and public-school families than the state establishing a public school that is run as a religious school. We’re witnessing a full-on assault on church-state separation and public education – and religious public charter schools are the next frontier. America needs a national recommitment to church-state separation,” she said. 

The organization also pointed Fox News Digital to comments from other groups sponsoring the lawsuit as well as plaintiffs, including one parent, Michele Medley, who is a mother of three children, two of whom are autistic and one of whom identifies as LGBTQ+. 

CATHOLIC CHARTER SCHOOLS? OKLAHOMA CITY TESTS THE WATERS

“I have firsthand experience with private religious schools’ unwillingness to accept and meet the educational needs of students with autism and other developmental disabilities,” she said. 

“I am also aware of the possible religious discrimination against LGBTQIA+ students that could harm my child and others. I don’t want my tax dollars to fund a charter school that won’t commit to adequately accepting and educating all students.”

Proponents of the plan cite its benefits, however. According to Catholic Conference of Oklahoma Executive Director Brett Farley, who appeared on the Fox News Channel shortly after the school was approved, part of the plan was to offer more options for students in the state’s rural areas.

“What we’re trying to achieve here is to deliver more options to kids, largely in the rural areas of our state, that are stuck with one option. And most often those options are just inadequate,” he told Fox News’ Carley Shimkus.

“We have a great need in that area, also in the special needs area where kids just need more specialized education and options are the name of the game. And so we’ve been about this as a Catholic Church for 500 years. We want to continue to expand those options to those kids that need it,” he added.

OKLAHOMA BOARD APPROVES NATION’S FIRST TAXPAYER-FUNDED RELIGIOUS SCHOOL

As news broke of the lawsuit, Farley told the AP that it came as “no surprise” since the intentions to challenge the school were made clear from the beginning.

“We remain confident that the Oklahoma court will ultimately agree with the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in favor of religious liberty,” he added.

The board’s approval came despite earlier warnings from the states Republican Attorney Gen. Gentner Drummond, however, who warned in a statement at the time that “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,” he added.

Taking a different stance, the Gov. Kevin Stitt, R., supported the board’s decision to approve the religious charter school.

In another interview earlier this year, he told Fox News Digital it opens up more options for Oklahoma’s students.

“Now every single parent, regardless of zip code, can take their kid to the school of their choice, and they’re going to get a tax credit, a refundable tax credit to go to a Christian school, a private school, a charter school, wherever they want,” he said.

Stitt also approved a legislative package offering tax incentives ranging from $5,000 to $7,500 to parents whose children attend private schools. The package also offered raises for teachers and provided additional funding to rural schools.

Fox News Digital reached out to Oklahoma’s Statewide Virtual Charter School Board for additional comment, but they did not respond in time for publication. The board previously declined the Associated Press’ request for comment, however, citing pending litigation.

For more Culture, Media, Education, Opinion, and channel coverage, visit foxnews.com/media.

The Associated Press and Fox News’ Joshua Q. Nelson contributed to this report.

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