Catholic virtual charter school lawsuit
Clockwise from top left: Erin Brewer, Melissa Abdo, Krystal Bonsall, Leslie Briggs, Brenda Lené, Erika Wright, Lori Walke, Mitch Randall, Bruce Prescott and Michele Medley are all part of a lawsuit filed Monday, July 31, 2023, opposing the newly authorized St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School. (Provided)

A group of 10 plaintiffs including faith leaders, public school parents and the Oklahoma Parent Legislative Action Committee filed a lawsuit today seeking to invalidate the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board’s June decision to authorize a Catholic virtual charter school, which would become the first religiously affiliated public school in America.

Filed in Oklahoma County District Court, the lawsuit names the SVCSB, its members, the Oklahoma State Department of Education, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters and St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School as defendants.

The 10 plaintiffs are represented by a number of lawyers with national organizations, including Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union, Education Law Center and Freedom From Religion Foundation. Oklahoma-based law firm Odom & Sparks PLLC and attorney J. Douglas Mann are also representing the plaintiffs.

“A religious public charter school betrays our country’s promises of church-state separation and inclusive public education,” Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United, said in a virtual press conference Monday. “We’re bringing today’s lawsuit to protect the religious freedom of Oklahoma public school families and taxpayers and to stop Christian nationalists from taking over our public schools across the nation. Religious public charter schools are one piece of a larger Christian nationalist agenda to infuse Christianity into public schools.”

According to biographies provided by Laser’s organization, plaintiffs include:

  • Melissa Abdo, a Catholic resident of Tulsa County and a current member of both the Jenks Public Schools Board of Education and the Board of Directors of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association;
  • Krystal Bonsall, a McClain County parent;
  • Leslie Briggs, the legal director of Oklahoma Appleseed Center for Law and Justice and a queer parent of a child who will enter public school next year;
  • Brenda Lené, the founder and operator of the Facebook group Oklahoma Education Needs/Donations and a Logan County public school parent;
  • Michele Medley, a parent and advocate for students with disabilities;
  • Bruce Prescott, a retired Baptist minister who served as executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists;
  • The Rev. Mitch Randall, the CEO of Good Faith Media, a former pastor of NorthHaven Church in Norman and the executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics;
  • The Rev. Lori Walke, a senior minister of Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ;
  • Erika Wright, founder and leader of the Oklahoma Rural Schools Coalition and former member of the Noble Public Schools Board of Education; and

A statewide organization with numerous local chapters dedicated to connecting public school parents with state and local political bodies, OKPLAC is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. OKPLAC Vice Chairwoman Erin Brewer said in the press conference that the question of authorizing a Catholic charter school is an issue for all Oklahoma taxpayers.

“No parent or taxpayer should be forced to fund someone else’s religion,” Brewer said. “There is no place in the state of Oklahoma for a religious, exclusionary school funded by tax dollars.”

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‘God has not gone anywhere’

catholic school legal counsel, Alliance Defending Freedom
Statewide Virtual Charter School Board Chairman Robert Franklin, right, speaks to board members during a meeting on Monday, July 24, 2023. (Bennett Brinkman)

Charter schools are public schools with unelected governing boards that can be privately run. The legal complaint filed Monday (embedded below) alleges a number of issues with St. Isidore ranging from discrimination in the potential new school to the fact that a public school would be teaching Catholic doctrine. Additionally, the complaint says there is not enough separation between the school and its educational management organization, which will run its operations.

Both the school and its EMO will be part of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma, something the lawsuit alleges would be a violation of Oklahoma law.

Those involved with the decision to authorize what could be the nation’s first religious charter school seemed to be expecting such a lawsuit.

“News of a suit from these organizations comes as no surprise since they have indicated early in this process their intentions to litigate,” said Brett Farley, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma. “We remain confident that the Oklahoma court will ultimately agree with the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in favor of religious liberty.”

SVCSB members hired their own national legal counsel at a meeting July 24 in anticipation of such legal challenges. In addition to hiring a local lawyer to represent the board in contract negotiations with St. Isidore, the board also hired the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian law firm, to represent the board and its individual members in potential court cases regarding the school.

Though he voted against hiring ADF, board Chairman Robert Franklin said after last week’s meeting that he expected a lawsuit to be filed once a contract is finalized. No such contract has been signed yet.

In a statement, Walters framed the new school and the lawsuit facing it in terms of religious freedom.

“It is time to end atheism as the state-sponsored religion. Suing and targeting the Catholic virtual charter school is religious persecution because of one’s faith, which is the very reason that religious freedom is constitutionally protected,” Walters said. “A warped perversion of history has created a modern day concept that all religious freedom is driven from the classrooms. I will always side for an individual’s right to choose religious freedom in education.”

But the plaintiffs — particularly Lori Walke, who leads Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ in Oklahoma City — said they follow a different concept of religious freedom.

“God has not gone anywhere, but what has happened is that we have made a decision as a country to not coerce children into praying to a specific deity or in a specific tradition. And so when churches and people of faith stand up for the separation of church and state, that is truly defending religious freedom,” Walke said. “The idea that religious freedom is ensuring that people can force their religion on you with really a ‘Don’t tread on me, but I’ll tread on thee’ sort of approach — we are very serious about pushing back against that from a particularly Christian perspective. I would just say that it was not atheism and godlessness that killed Jesus. Rather, it was a combination of state power and religious power that crucified him.”

Gov. Kevin Stitt was asked about the new litigation at a press conference Monday and said he supports allowing religiously affiliated charter schools because he wants parents to have more options for their children. He called charter schools “public schools with community management.”

“If the Catholics want to set up a charter school specifically in McAlester, Oklahoma, to educate their community, and parents choose to go there, that’s a great thing,” Stitt said. “And if the Jewish community wants to set up a Jewish charter school, that’s an awesome thing. If the Muslims want to set up a charter school, and their parents want (their students) to go there, that’s an awesome thing.”

(Update: This article was updated at 10:20 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 1, to add additional information about Leslie Briggs.)

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