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State board should 'stay the course,' prohibit religious charter schools, says advocacy group

A monastery in Syria
Vyacheslav Argenberg
Wikimedia Commons
A monastery in Syria

As a church in Oklahoma City plans to apply to open a charter school, an organization advocating for the separation of church and state says Oklahoma should continue to disallow publicly funded religious schools.

On Tuesday, the Freedom from Religion Foundation sent a memoto the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board saying a recent non-binding opinion issued by Attorney General John O’Connor is biased and “invites litigation” because it allows for the establishment of religious charter schools.

Karen Heineman, a legal fellow who helped write the 10-page memo, said one reason O’Connor’s opinion is flawed is because it begs the question of how a government constitutionally forbidden from directing religious activities would regulate a religious school.

“If you have to allow religious applicants as operators, what can you do as far as government restrictions or oversight? How do you enforce a contract between basically a public sponsor and say a church, a religious operator?” said Heineman.

O’Connor’s opinion was issued at the request of the state charter board after the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City announced plans to launch a virtual charter school. The archdiocese confirmed to Public Radio Tulsa Thursday that it plans to apply with the state charter board later this month.

Heineman said the board should be faithful to the Charter School Act that says charter schools are public schools.

“A state cannot establish a church anymore than it can establish a religious public school. So we would just say, ‘Stay the course, do what you’ve been doing.’ No change is needed at this point,” said Heineman.

Newly elected State Superintendent of Education Ryan Walters, who makes more than $100,000 a year as an employee of a nonprofit funded by pro-charter groups, praised O’Connor’s opinion. Gov. Kevin Stitt likewise said the opinion defends parents, education freedom, and religious liberty.

Before joining Public Radio Tulsa, Elizabeth Caldwell was a freelance reporter and a teacher. She holds a master's from Hollins University. Her audio work has appeared at KCRW, CBC's The World This Weekend, and The Missouri Review. She is a south Florida native.