Oklahoma Supreme Court says superintendent can’t intervene in Catholic charter school suit

The Oklahoma Supreme Court denied a request by the state superintendent of schools to intervene in a lawsuit involving the nation’s first religious charter school, a possible setback for the school as the lawsuit potentially threatens its plans for opening next year. 

Oklahoma Supreme Court says superintendent can’t intervene in Catholic charter school suit

State Attorney General Gentner Drummond filed a lawsuit last month against the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, arguing the establishment of St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School violated the state’s religious liberty protections.

Charter schools are special publicly funded education institutions; the National Charter School Resource Center defines a “charter school” as a public “school of choice,” one that remains “publicly accountable” while still retaining autonomy in how it is run and managed.

A party can seek to “intervene” in a lawsuit if it claims to have a legitimate interest in the dispute. The Oklahoma State Department of Education and State Superintendent Ryan Walters had sought to intervene against Drummond’s filing, citing the department’s role in administering state aid to the charter school. Walters had said earlier this month the motion was meant to “defend [the Department of Education’s] interest in distributing state aid without religious discrimination.”

In a decision this week, the state Supreme Court denied that request. The court said both the department and Walters could “submit a brief as ‘amici curiae’”in the case by later this month.

In a separate decision, the court granted a request to intervene from St. Isidore itself, allowing it to participate in the suit. 

The state education department did not respond to a request for comment on the decision. St. Isidore also did not respond to a request for comment before publication. 

When filing the suit last month, Drummond said the charter board’s contract approval “violated the religious liberty of every Oklahoman” by forcing state residents to fund “the teachings of a specific religious sect with our tax dollars.”

“Today, Oklahomans are being compelled to fund Catholicism,” Drummond said at the time. “Because of the legal precedent created by the board’s actions, tomorrow we may be forced to fund radical Muslim teachings like Sharia law.”

The attorney general’s lawsuit came after another lawsuit filed by several state residents and interest groups to block the sponsorship and funding for the Catholic charter school.

The charter school board had approved the creation of the Catholic school in June of this year; in October the board approved the school’s contract

Last month, following Drummond’s suit, the school told CNA that it was “optimistic that the court will see this lawsuit for what it is: a baseless attempt to enforce exactly the kind of religious discrimination that the Supreme Court has made clear the First Amendment forbids.” 

“We hope that the lawsuit will resolve quickly so that St. Isidore can focus instead on its critical mission to open the door to a new and innovative learning opportunity to those families and children most in need,” the school said. 

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