The First Amendment states, in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” While proponents of “church-state separation” often harp on the first clause of that protection, they sometimes seem to overlook the second.
One implication of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment is that the government cannot treat religious people worse than it treats everyone else. For example, the government cannot exclude otherwise qualified religious organizations from generally available public benefits. In the landmark Supreme Court decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer—won by Alliance Defending Freedom in 2017—the Court ruled that such discrimination is “odious to our Constitution.”
In Oklahoma, the Charter Schools Act allows private entities like a “private college or university, private person, or private organization” to contract with a public sponsor and operate charter schools in the state. Although the Oklahoma Act requires charter schools to be “nonsectarian,” the Free Exercise Clause requires that religious entities have the same ability to operate charter schools as nonsectarian entities.
Observing the commands of the Free Exercise Clause, Oklahoma’s Statewide Virtual Charter School Board (which oversees online charter schools serving the entire state) approved an application from the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa to establish the St. Isidore of Seville Virtual Catholic School. But a local group has filed a lawsuit claiming that the Board’s approval of St. Isidore violates the ”nonsectarian” requirement in the Oklahoma Charter Schools Act, although the group’s petition entirely ignores the Free Exercise Clause.
Are Oklahoma state officials trying to establish a religion?
No. Opponents of religion in schools have long suggested that any time the government directs taxpayer dollars to a religious institution, it amounts to the establishment of religion and therefore violates the First Amendment. But that assertion is false.
The government is required by the First Amendment to treat religious organizations equally. By approving St. Isidore’s application, the Board is simply treating this Catholic virtual school the same as non-religious charter schools—not providing any extra benefits. Indeed, schools of any religious affiliation are free to apply for approval from the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board.
The Board has an obligation to treat all charter-school applicants fairly whether they are secular or religious. To do otherwise would violate the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause.
Does St. Isidore discriminate against non-Christian students?
No. The Board approved St. Isidore to become a virtual charter school after reviewing the school’s application and determining that it complies with state non-discrimination law. While St. Isidore plans to educate children from a Catholic perspective, it does not require students to be Catholic. St. Isidore’s proposed policies clearly state that the school will be open to all students, including students of “different faiths or no faith.” If the number of applicants exceeds St. Isidore’s capacity, it will use a random lottery to determine admissions.
How will establishing St. Isidore benefit parents and students?
Parents deserve more choices about where to educate their children, not fewer. Different children flourish in different environments, and providing a wide variety of options allows parents to ensure their children are educated in a way that they know is best for them.
People of faith should not be treated as second-class citizens. Just as non-religious parents can choose to send their children to non-religious charter schools, religious parents should be able to send their children to charter schools that align with their beliefs. Regardless of whether you agree with St. Isidore’s religious beliefs, we can all understand that providing more education options benefits everyone.
- June 2023: The Statewide Virtual Charter School Board approved St. Isidore of Seville Virtual Catholic School to become a statewide virtual charter school.
- July 2023: The school’s approval was challenged in a lawsuit.
- September 2023: Since the lawsuit challenged policies that hadn’t even been enacted yet, Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys filed a motion to dismiss it.