Home Education Religious Right Takes Aim at Public Education, with Implications Nationwide (Including in...

Religious Right Takes Aim at Public Education, with Implications Nationwide (Including in Virginia)

"At the very least, the Church should fix its own house before it asks taxpayers to build it an annex."

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by John Seymour of Arlington

Emboldened by favorable “religious freedom” decisions from the 6-3 conservative super-majority in the U.S. Supreme Court, the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board recently voted to approve the St. Isidore of Seville Virtual Charter School.  The School, which is owned and operated by the Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, will serve rural Oklahomans and is the first religious school in the nation to be funded by state taxpayers.  As numerous news sources have reported, the Oklahoma Supreme Court heard oral arguments last week on whether the Board’s decision comports with state and federal law.

Proponents of the Charter School Board’s decision maintain that treating religious charter schools differently from secular charter schools constitutes religious discrimination in violation of the Oklahoma and federal Constitutions.  Opponents argue that those same Constitutional provisions flatly prohibit the State from funding or promoting particular religions.  The prohibition in the federal Constitution’s Establishment Clause, for example, is the narrative embodiment of the “wall between Church and State” established by the Founding Fathers.  It has its origins in Virginia’s 1786 Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson, in which he warned that “to compel a man to furnish contribution of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical.”  Other opponents of the decision, including the Republican Attorney General of Oklahoma, caution that the decision represents yet another attempt by white Christian nationalists to promote the primacy of Christianity in American civil life and to imbue its teachings everywhere in America’s institutions.

The outcome of the case carries significant implications for Oklahomans, and if followed by religious organizations in other states, the nation at large.  In 2020, for example, Arlington, Virginia also established its first virtual school — also named after the patron saint of the Internet, St. Isidore — although it has not, as yet, sought status as a public charter school or subsidies from Arlington taxpayers.  And while Virginia currently has only a handful of public charter schools, Republican Governor Youngkin announced in his “School Choice Proclamation” a goal to triple the number of public charter schools state-wide.

Maryland currently has nearly 50 public charter schools and, in the District of Columbia, nearly half of students attend a public charter school.  If the Oklahoma Diocese’s insistence on taxpayer subsidies begins to find support nation-wide, as “freedom of religion” zealots hope, then the introduction of tax-funded religious charter schools will divert scarce tax dollars from already under-funded public school systems.  In a 2023 ranking of state educational programs, Oklahoma, for example, was ranked 48th in the nation in both spending and funding of public education.  The loss of significant tax dollars, particularly when public schools continue to experience rising teacher vacancy rates due to low pay, plummeting student math and reading scores, and soaring levels of truancy, will only aggravate the current crisis in public education.

Taxpayer-funded religious schools also undermine America’s diverse civil society.  The defining feature of all public schools, including charters, is that they serve all students, irrespective of background, beliefs, gender, or sexual orientation.  In its application to the School Board, in contrast, the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City proudly promotes the school as an “evangelical” institution acting as “an instrument of the Church.”   In practice, this means that the School agrees to comply with only those state and federal laws it finds “compatible with the teachings of the Catholic Church.”  Accordingly, long-standing civil liberties protected by all other public charter schools would not be honored by a Catholic-run institution.  For example, the School expressly reserves its right to fire unmarried pregnant women teachers, or to refuse to hire gay teachers, or to deny admission to gay or transexual students, or to extend spousal employee benefits only to an opposite-sex spouse.

Indeed, the School openly admits its strict commitment to teaching Catholic doctrine and beliefs with the admonition that those who spurn those teachings will “end up in Hell.”

Many taxpayers, I suspect, do not share the teachings of the Church about acts that doom their practitioners to eternal damnation, such as prohibitions on pre-marital sex, contraception, abortion, and in-vitro fertilization, among countless others.  They might also resent bankrolling moral lessons with which they do not agree and view as deeply hypocritical.  Indeed, following decades of their own still-unfolding sexual abuse scandals in the Archdiocese of Oklahoma, the Church in Virginia, and elsewhere, taxpayers of other faiths, or none at all, might reasonably question the  Church’s claim to Christian piety.  At the very least, the Church should fix its own house before it asks taxpayers to build it an annex.

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