The Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board voted 5-0 to disapprove the St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School’s application.
In doing so, they rejected the Catholic church’s application to create “the first taxpayer-funded religious charter school in the U.S., taking a first step toward a long legal battle testing the concept of separation of church and state,” according to Reuters.
Assistant Attorney General Niki Batt read from the Oklahoma Constitution, reminding board members that state funding of public schools should be “free from sectarian control.”
“As we sit here today, I just want you to be aware of what the law is in Oklahoma,” Batt said.
During the hearing, the board heard from other local clergy and concerned citizens about granting the charter.
“If the board were to grant this application, it would for the first time permit the use of taxpayer dollars to fund religious education at a public charter school,” Lori Walke, senior minister at Mayflower Congregational Church of Christ OKC, said to the board.
“This [approval of charter] would violate both the law and principle of religious freedom,” she added.
Walke struck an important note. Over the last decade, conservative Christians and politicians have attempted to redefine religious liberty. While embracing a radical interpretation of the free exercise clause in the First Amendment, they have almost entirely ignored the establishment clause.
BJC (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty) in Washington D.C. defines religious liberty as “the freedom to believe and exercise or act upon religious conscience without unnecessary interference by the government. Just as religious liberty involves the freedom to practice religion, it also means freedom not to practice religion.”
Proponents of dismantling the separation of church and state assert that the government’s refusal to support their religious practices violates the free exercise clause. They contend that separation of church and state is unconstitutional, with the government unfairly discriminating against religious causes.
Oklahoma State Superintendent Ryan Walters described proponents of church-state separation as “radical leftists” and asserted that “their hatred for the Catholic Church has caused them to attack our very foundational religious liberties and attack this school and its application.”
Chairman Robert Franklin responded: “Superintendent Walters, out of respect for you and the colleagues who spoke before us, no disrespect to you, but I didn’t hear a radical position, nor did I hear an attack on the Catholic Church.”
The reinterpretation of religious liberty by people like Walters is designed for two purposes: to access public funding for religion and to discriminate against individuals in the public square.
Not all conservatives want to redefine religious liberty, but the religious and political conservatives who are advocating for such a redefinition are wrong.
The first 16 words of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution are: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The principle of separation of church and state protects both clauses. While the phrase “separation of church and state” is not found in the First Amendment, the spirit and practice prevent both clauses from being violated.
According to BJC: “Religious liberty is best protected when the institutions of church and state remain separated, and neither tries to perform or interfere with the essential mission and work of the other.”
In the Oklahoma case, advocates for the public funding of private sectarian education are asking the state to violate state and federal laws. Thankfully, the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board upheld the law.
However, the board did inform the archdiocese that they had 30 days to correct flaws in the application and that they would reconsider the application if it was corrected and resubmitted. Therefore, the verdict is still out on whether the board will grant the charter.
Clark Frailey, executive director of Pastors for Oklahoma Kids, told Good Faith Media: “In rejecting the first taxpayer-funded public-religious school in the nation, the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board has taken an important first step in affirming Oklahoma’s clear constitutional bans on using taxpayer dollars to fund religious work.”
“The constitution was upheld by a statewide vote in 2016 to eliminate any doubts: Oklahomans do not want taxpayer dollars funding religion. Oklahomans understand: religion is stronger and more effective when it is not in the hands of the government,” he said.
Let’s pray that the state continues to follow the laws of the state and federal constitutions by refraining from funding and meddling in religious education.
The wall separating church and state is a sacred principle, allowing religion and the state to flourish in their respective arenas.
CEO of Good Faith Media.