Lawsuit Schools Oklahoma on Church and State - Word&Way

Lawsuit Schools Oklahoma on Church and State

St. Isidore of Seville, a 7th-century Church leader in modern-day Spain, is often called the “patron saint of the Internet.” The theologian and bishop who lived a few years before the creation of the Internet often gets this unofficial patron status because of his ambitious project to compile universal knowledge in his tome Etymologiae, which became an influential textbook during the Middle Ages.

However, others push back against honoring Isidore, and not just because he didn’t really create new knowledge as he instead just brought together what others had researched and created. His antisemitism — found in both his writing and his governing actions — keep some from heralding Isidore.

“Isidore’s hostile attitude towards the Jews finds expression in the derogatory, even insulting description of Judaism and the Jewish people,” explained Bat-sheva Albert in The Jewish Quarterly Review. “The sheer number of his anti-Jewish references and his emphasis on this topic are characteristic of his attitude: one could credibly contend that Isidore is actually obsessed with Judaism.”

But Isidore didn’t just write against Jews. He presided over a meeting of bishops where he contributed to two significant canon law decisions targeting Jews: the call to forcibly remove children from parents adhering to Judaism so the children would receive a Christian education, and the call to forbid Jews (and Christians of Jewish origin) from holding public office.

Isidore is getting a lot of new references online (and in print) because a controversial Catholic virtual school in Oklahoma seeking to become the first publicly-funded sectarian charter school chose him for its name. The St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School, run by the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, in June received approval in from the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board to become a publicly-funded charter school. That decision sparked the filing of a new lawsuit on Monday (July 31) by a group of clergy, public school parents, and public education advocates.

“Charter schools are public schools, not Sunday Schools,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (one of the organizations supporting the plaintiffs and, in full disclosure, an organization where I serve as a member of the national board of trustees).

“A religious public school is a contradiction in terms and a clear violation of Oklahoma law,” she added during the online announcement of the lawsuit Monday. “A religious public charter school betrays our country’s promises of church-state separation and inclusive public education. We’re bringing today’s lawsuit to protect the religious freedom of Oklahoma public school families and taxpayers, and to stop Christian Nationalists from taking over our public schools across the nation.”

Rachel Laser, president & CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, speaks during a press conference announcing a different lawsuit featuring clergy plaintiffs in Missouri, at Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis on Jan. 19, 2023. (Brian Kaylor/Word&Way)

The Oklahoma suit is an important development in the public debate about this proposed sectarian public school. And given the church-state issues at stake and the efforts by those pushing Christian Nationalism around this country, this case could reverberate far beyond the Sooner State. So this issue of A Public Witness looks at the dustup over St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School and the new lawsuit joined by some Baptist and United Church of Christ ministers.

A Virtual Certainty

In February, officials from the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City presented their proposal for the St. Isidore school during a meeting of the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board. Lara Schuler, the archdiocese’s senior director for Catholic education, argued it wasn’t fair that public schools received taxpayer funds but Catholic ones don’t (even though they aren’t public and aren’t governed by the same nondiscrimination rules about accepting students or hiring teachers and staff).

“If we’re competing against all other virtual schools but all of the other ones are free, that’s a problem,” Schuler told the board. “The taxpayer dollars are paying for all of those other ones, but our parents are paying taxes too.”

Another Catholic representative said they knew that whatever decision the board made would spark litigation, adding, “We’re prepared for that long road. This is a major priority for us.” That predication of all-but-certain litigation demonstrated the desire not just for the school but also for another legal test case about public funding of sectarian schools.

Ahead of the official presentation, Republican state Attorney General John O’Connor issued an opinion in December claiming that even though Oklahoma law prohibited charter schools from being sectarian, he thought that prohibition was unconstitutional and thus it would be okay for the state to create publicly-funded sectarian charter schools. O’Connor, who is Catholic, issued his opinion while a lame duck, and thus was out of office by the time the state board actually heard the proposal in February. He had been appointed to the AG spot in 2021 after a resignation and then he lost the Republican primary as he sought to keep the job.

Shortly after the archdiocese presented its proposal, the man who defeated O’Connor withdrew his predecessor’s opinion. Gentner Drummond, a Republican, argued that O’Connor didn’t follow proper procedures and shouldn’t have released the opinion. Additionally, Drummond said his predecessor’s opinion “misuses the concept of religious liberty by employing it as a means to justify state-funded religion.” The new AG added he “is not currently comfortable advising” the board to violate the state Constitution.

But while the state’s new Republican AG warned against the proposal, the state’s new Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction (also an elected position) started pushing for more Christian Nationalism in public schools. Ryan Walters offered his support for the Catholic charter school. And then after lawmakers in neighboring Texas failed to pass a bill to mandate posting the Ten Commandments in every public school classroom, Walters called on Oklahoma to require that.

Ryan Walters, Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction (right), bows his head in prayer along with other members of the state’s Board of Education during an official meeting on April 12, 2023. (Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press)

When the proposal came up for a vote in April, the state board voted against approving it but didn’t kill the idea. Instead, the board gave the archdiocese more time to address some of the issues raised by board members and then refile the request ahead of a final vote in a couple of months. When that vote came in June, the state board voted 3-2 in favor of St. Isidore. That decision quickly sparked a rebuke from the state’s AG.

“The approval of any publicly funded religious school is contrary to Oklahoma law and not in the best interest of taxpayers,” Drummond said. “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.”

It didn’t take long for Drummond’s prophecy to be fulfilled. And as Drummond argued, the lawsuit filed on Monday accuses the state board of violating the state Constitution, the Oklahoma Charter Schools Act, and the board’s own regulations. The lawsuit also insists that the idea of a sectarian public charter school runs counter to the vision of public education.

“The defining feature of America’s public schools is that they must welcome and serve all students, regardless of a student’s background, beliefs, or abilities. Oklahoma embraces this core principle in its constitution and through a comprehensive system of statutes and regulations,” the lawsuit reads. “Schools that do not adhere to this principle have long existed and are entitled to operate, but they cannot be part of the public-education system. Permitting otherwise would upend the legal framework Oklahoma has constructed to govern public schools and protect students.”

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Prayer for Relief

A common trope pushed by those espousing Christian Nationalism is to argue that public schools “kicked out” God and promote atheism. But this lawsuit doesn’t fit with that inaccurate caricature.

Three of the plaintiffs are clergy members: Bruce Prescott, a retired Baptist minister who is also a former public school educator; Mitch Randall, a Baptist pastor who currently leads Good Faith Media; and Lori Walke, the senior minister at Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ in Oklahoma City. Additionally, the lawsuit notes that plaintiff Melissa Abdo, who is a member of a local public school board and a member of the Board of Directors for the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, is Catholic.

Walke, a UCC pastor who is also a lawyer, emphasized that as a pastor she cares “deeply about religious freedom.” And that is why she joined the case against a religious school seeking to force others to fund it.

“It is difficult to overstate how important the separation of church and state is to me,” she said. “It is foundational to our state and our country because it protects religious freedom for all of us. It ensures each of us can live out our conscience’s dictates.”

“But creating a religious public charter school is not religious freedom,” Walke added. “Forcing taxpayers to fund a religious school that, as they openly admit, will be a ‘place of evangelization’ for one specific religion is not religious freedom. Diverting scarce public education resources to a religious school that can and will discriminate against children, families, and staff is not religious freedom. … True religious freedom requires separation of church and state, and our democracy requires public education that is open to all.”

Oklahoma Capitol in Oklahoma City. (Caleb Long/Creative Commons)

Prescott, a retired minister who previously led Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, noted that the charter school in question made clear in its application that “it plans to discriminate in admissions and employment.” He argued that such an admission, along with the sectarian oversight and mission of the school, should make the school ineligible for public funding.

“The government should never fund discrimination,” he explained. “No taxpayer-funded school should be allowed to turn away teachers or students because they are of the ‘wrong’ religion, or have a disability, or are involved in a same-sex relationship, or have a gender identity different than was assigned to them on a birth certificate, or simply become pregnant.”

“Religious schools — like houses of worship — should be funded through voluntary contributions from their own membership, not money extracted involuntarily with state taxes from members of a religiously diverse community,” Prescott added.

Randall, who previously pastored Baptist congregations in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas, also connected the current debate over the Catholic school with the history of schools in the region that were designed to discriminate against Indigenous peoples.

“As a Christian and citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, I oppose the state of Oklahoma funding religious charter schools,” Randall explained. “As an Indigenous person and great-grandson of a boarding school resident at Chilocco, Oklahoma, it is appalling to think state leaders would reopen a door to a time when tax dollars were used to publicly fund the advancement of religion. These are two reasons our state’s founders wisely prohibited the use of taxpayer dollars to fund religious instruction.”

Rather than pitting public education against religious values, these minister-plaintiffs see their faith leading them to advocate for inclusive public schools that serve all children. And while religious communities have the right to start and operate their own private schools, it is not a violation of their religious freedom to deny such sectarian schools the status (and funds) of a public school. But it would violate the religious freedom of taxpayers with different religious beliefs to force them to fund a school with an evangelistic mission and discriminatory policies.

So while I’m not sure St. Isidore of Seville is a good candidate for a patron saint of the Internet, he does seem to be well-suited as the namesake for a school that seeks to mix church and state while advancing a discriminatory sectarian agenda.

As a public witness,

Brian Kaylor

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