politics

Oklahoma takes ‘momentous’ step to allow taxpayer-funded religious schools

Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt said the advisory “rightly defends parents, educational freedom and religious liberty in Oklahoma.” Newly elected State Superintendent Ryan Walters called him “the right decision for Oklahomans.”

Now is the time to see if Oklahoma’s faith-based institutions are successfully soliciting taxpayer support to create charter schools that teach religion as doctrinal truth, just as private schools do today, and whether lawmakers will push to change state law. Judicial authorities in other Republican-run states could also write similar opinions.

“The policy implications are huge because this is the first state to allow religious charter schools,” said Nicole Stelle Garnett, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame and influential supporter of religious charter schools who wants to that other states follow Oklahoma’s lead. “The legal implications are huge because it’s the first state to say they have to do it,” she said in an interview.

These impending decisions and court battles will pave the way for new constitutional debates on the boundary between church and state. But it will take time and effort before churches in Oklahoma can establish state-funded religious charter schools. And it could be years before a national movement in that direction takes hold.

“It’s a momentous thing the attorney general did, but it’s not going to change the landscape overnight,” Garnett said of Oklahoma’s opinion. “It won’t be like tomorrow, we’ll wake up and make half the charter schools religious.”

Yet the formal opinion of a conservative attorney general marks one of three ways religious charters can find legal ground.

In a widely read 2020 report for the conservative Manhattan Institute think tank, Garnett argued that states could also change or write laws allowing such schools to exist. Or perhaps a lawyer could take legal action on behalf of a school operator who wants to incorporate religion into their curriculum.

O’Connor, a former Trump administration judicial nominee who lost his party’s primary for re-election and drew attention from secular groups for his religious views earlier this year, was unavailable for an interview according to his office.

His opinion, however, is based on three groundbreaking High Court cases involving religious institutions: Carson v. Makin earlier this year, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue in 2020, and Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer in 2017.

“We do not think the United States Supreme Court would accept the argument that because charter schools are considered public for various purposes, that a state should be permitted to discriminate against private participants affiliated with a religion who wish to establish and operate charter schools in accordance with their faith alongside other private participants,” the Oklahoma opinion argued.

“Almost nothing in the text or the trajectory of Lutheran Trinity, EspinozaWhere carson would lead to this conclusion.

This is far from a universal belief, of course.

“It’s a whole different ball game for the state to educate children about religious doctrine and teach it as the truth,” said Derek Black, professor of education and civil rights at the College of law from the University of South Carolina, in an interview. “That’s what we’re talking about here: state dollars in public schools, providing education to children preaching religion as a way of life to adhere to. It’s amazing.

“Of all the things this court has done,” Black said, “it’s such a huge leap that I’m not ready to believe the court is going to say the state has to do this.”



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