The state’s attorney general withdrew a previous opinion that opened the door for religious charter schools and is urging a state board to “use caution” in considering a Catholic school application. 

Charter schools are public schools that are privately managed and, under state law, are required to be non-sectarian, meaning not affiliated with a particular religion. The application under consideration was made by the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa for the St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual Charter School, an online school that would teach curriculum like in the Catholic school system, including religious components.

It would be the first publicly-funded, religious charter school and is being watched as a national test case. 

Catholic leaders presented the school proposal to the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board last week. They have until late April to approve or deny the application. 

Former attorney general John O’Connor’s Dec. 1 opinion said the application should proceed and advised the board to disregard state and federal bans on religious charter schools in light of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

But Attorney General Gentner Drummond, in a letter to Statewide Virtual Charter School Board Executive Director Rebecca Wilkinson, said O’Connor’s opinion “misuses the concept of religious liberty by employing it as a means to justify state-funded religion.” 

The Supreme Court cases cited by O’Connor involve private schools, not charter schools, and the law is currently unsettled on whether charter schools are considered “state actors,” Drummond wrote. The Supreme Court may rule on the issue in its next term. 

Drummond said until then, his office is not comfortable advising the board to violate the state constitution’s provision to establish and maintain a system of public schools that are “free from sectarian control” or the Legislature’s directive in the Oklahoma Charter School Act. 

O’Connor’s opinion did nothing to advance religious liberty, Drummond wrote, and approval of the application would create a “slippery slope.” 

“While many Oklahomans undoubtedly support charter schools sponsored by various Christian faiths, the precedent created by approval…will compel approval of similar applications by all faiths,” Drummond wrote. “I doubt most Oklahomans would want their tax dollars to fund a religious school whose tenets are diametrically opposed to their own faith.”

Drummond also noted that Wilkinson’s request for an attorney general opinion should have been first approved by the agency’s governing board, but wasn’t.

Jennifer Palmer has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2016 and covers education. Contact her at (405) 761-0093 or Follow her on Twitter @jpalmerOKC.

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