Religious Liberty Clinic supports Catholic dioceses’ efforts to operate first faith-based charter school in US

Author: Anna Bradley

Archbishop Of Oklahoma City Paul S

Two Catholic dioceses have submitted an application to address educational gaps in Oklahoma by opening the first religious charter school in the nation.

A joint effort of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa, St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School seeks to provide new and innovative learning opportunities to K-12 students throughout the state, especially in underserved communities. Oklahoma’s Statewide Virtual Charter School Board will meet today to consider the school’s charter application.

“Education is the foundation on which our children build their lives,” Archbishop of Oklahoma City Most Rev. Paul S. Coakley said. “St. Isidore School will provide that foundation for families across the state who do not currently have access to a rigorous, integrated and authentically Catholic education that forms the whole person and prepares them not only to be successful members of their communities, but indeed to be virtuous leaders, conscientious citizens, loving parents and good neighbors to all.”

Bishop of Tulsa Rev. David A. Konderla added, “The heart of the Catholic educational tradition is to form children in the faith and to provide a home where they may learn to love God and to love others. St. Isidore School will continue that centuries-old tradition in exciting new ways, so that even more families may have access to a high-quality Catholic education and more communities may be served by the tremendous value these schools provide for all people, whether they are Catholic or not.”

Notre Dame Law School’s Religious Liberty Clinic has assisted the dioceses’ efforts to secure authorization to operate a Catholic charter school despite provisions of Oklahoma law that prohibit charter schools from being affiliated with religious organizations and that require the schools to be “nonsectarian.” Last December, the attorney general of Oklahoma, John O’Connor, issued an opinion letter concluding that these exclusions of faith-based charter schools likely violate the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause.

“It has been a great privilege to support this important endeavor,” said Notre Dame Law School Professor Nicole Stelle Garnett. “St. Isidore will enable the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa to provide a rigorous, and authentically Catholic, learning environment to students who would otherwise lack access to a Catholic school.”

Brett Farley, director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma, said, “We are honored to be working with the faculty and students in Notre Dame’s Religious Liberty Clinic. Their advice and collaboration have been indispensable in our effort to establish the nation’s first religious charter school. Without their counsel this important project would have been impossible.”

The question of whether states may constitutionally exclude faith-based charter schools extends well beyond Oklahoma. All 45 states that authorize charter schools require them to be secular, and most, like Oklahoma, prohibit them from being operated by or affiliated with religious organizations.

“More states ought to follow Oklahoma’s lead,” said Richard W. Garnett, professor of law and director of Notre Dame Law School’s Program on Church, State and Society. “Laws prohibiting faith-based charter schools unconstitutionally discriminate against religion. As Attorney General O’Connor aptly observed, a state ‘cannot enlist private organizations to promote a diversity of educational choices and then decide that any and every kind of religion is the wrong kind of diversity. This is not how the First Amendment works.’”

“It is tremendously rewarding for our clinic to help in this project,” said John Meiser, managing director for domestic litigation at the Notre Dame Law School Religious Liberty Clinic. “In recent years, the Supreme Court has made clear that states may not prohibit faith-based schools from participating in opportunities to expand educational options for families and children in need. I hope that St. Isidore may be the first of many faith-based charter schools to work with states to help fill critical gaps in K-12 education around the country.”

Established in 2020, the Notre Dame Law School Religious Liberty Initiative promotes and defends religious freedom for all people through advocacy, formation and thought leadership. The initiative protects the freedom of individuals to hold religious beliefs as well as their right to exercise and express those beliefs and to live according to them.

The Religious Liberty Initiative has represented individuals and organizations from an array of faith traditions to defend the right to religious worship, to preserve sacred lands from destruction, to promote the freedom to select religious ministers and to prevent discrimination against religious schools and families.

Learn more about the Religious Liberty Initiative at