Should religious schools be fully funded by government and taxpayer money? According to the state of Oklahoma, the answer to that question is yes. After months of heated debate, Oklahoma approved St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School, a charter school — a specialized public school, fully funded by the state and taxpayers — which has the mission to “participate in ‘the evangelizing mission of the Church,’ according to St. Isidore’s application to the state.”
St. Isidore’s would be the first religious public school fully funded by the government, a clear violation of the Constitution’s directive to separate church and state. Almost immediately after the move was announced, numerous groups — including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) — announced that they would be suing the state of Oklahoma on the grounds that “a religious school can’t be a public school, and a public school can’t be religious.” Other groups, including the organization Americans United for Separation of Church and State, were preparing to pursue legal measures against Oklahoma.
Some of the curriculum objectives that St. Isidore’s will teach include “because of sin humanity was separated from God, but in God’s love He has provided a path to salvation through the saving power of Christ, the second person of the Trinity, in His suffering, death and resurrection,” and “human persons are destined for eternal life with the Holy Trinity but that in freedom, an individual may reject God’s invitation and by this definitive self-exclusion end up in hell.” Anyone not of Catholic heritage would not only feel uncomfortable with a public school teaching this but could very likely be discriminated against when applying to the school, as St. Isidore’s would seek students of Catholic faith. Teaching religion to youth in public schools sends a clearly biased message and could lead to religious ideals becoming far more commonplace in our government and other schools, despite the clear unconstitutionality of this.
While there are other charter schools that specialize in topics such as the Hebrew language or other specific cultures, no charter school has ever been approved that is clearly and decidedly religious. There are also Hasidic Jewish schools in New York state that receive some funding from the government, but most of their funding comes from private tuition, as well as some Catholic schools that removed religious teaching and praying to become charters. However, authorizing a publicly funded, fully religious school represents a drastic shift in the ongoing fight regarding charter schools and school choice.
As the ACLU and Americans United For Separation of Church and State have realized, allowing St. Isidore’s to open would be a slap in the face to the idea of separation of church and state. Having a recognizable public school not only be founded on but also promulgates the ideas of a religion is unconstitutional. Public funding for programs and schools is politicized and creates a palpable feeling of support and favoritism for those ideas being funded, making the public funding of certain religions and religious beliefs incredibly dangerous — any charter school that would mandate religious instruction and prayer would be — and St. Isidore’s is no exception.
Public schools are founded on the objective that students cannot be discriminated against based on any quality, including race, religion, class or sex, and allowing a religious school to be opened as public would violate this. For example, some facets of the Catholic Church and St. Isidore’s curriculum promotes the idea that “God created persons male and female,” which isolates students who identify as transgender and might lead to discrimination based on gender. To have government money go toward openly discriminating against students is incredibly harmful and would only serve to polarize our already extremely opposed society.
Additionally, allowing one government-funded religious school to open would invariably create a chain reaction of additional religious charter schools extending across the nation — as the ACLU stated, “Government institutions cannot be religious entities, and that is what St. Isidore is. Even Oklahoma’s Republican attorney general has said that approving St. Isidore as a charter school is unlawful and has vowed to fight it.” To not only discriminate against students based on religion but to publicly fund it is a clear violation of the ideals set out in the Constitution. Chartering St. Isidore’s is not a “win for religious liberty and education freedom,” as Gov. Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma claims, but is instead an extreme loss for democracy and the premise of separation of church and state.
Samantha Rigante is a sophomore majoring in philosophy, politics and law.