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LEGAL DIGEST: Oklahomans challenge nation’s first publicly funded religious charter school; Court upholds end of religious exemptions for vaccines in Connecticut

Oklahomans challenge first publicly funded religious charter school

OKLAHOMA CITY (BP) – Parents, clergy and public education advocates are challenging Oklahoma’s approval of the first publicly funded religious charter school in the nation.

The Oklahoma Parent Legislative Action Committee (OPLAC), a statewide public education advocacy group, is joined by nine parents, educators and clergy in the suit to block the St. Isadore of Seville Virtual Charter School from receiving public funding.

The plaintiffs, who include Protestants, Catholics, members of the LGBTQ community and parents of children with disabilities, argue that the school would discriminate against non-Catholics, students with disabilities and students who identify as LGBTQ, according to the lawsuit filed July 30 in Oklahoma District Court.

The Statewide Virtual Charter School Board initially rejected the application for St. Isadore, but approved an amended application despite public concerns over separation of church and state. The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tulsa plan to open the school that could cost taxpayers an estimated $25.7 million.

Attorney General Gentner Drummond advised the board to reject the application, saying it violated state law and would be costly to defend in court. Drummond’s advice contradicted his predecessor John O’Connor, who advised the board during his tenure that the school was within the law. O’Conner said Oklahoma’s constitutional ban on the use of public funding for charter schools could be a violation of the U.S. Constitution. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt also approves the religious charter school.

Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters, a defendant in the lawsuit, told the Washington Post the lawsuit is “religious persecution because of one’s faith, which is the very reason that religious freedom is constitutionally protected. A warped perversion of history,” Walters told the Post, “has created a modern concept that all religious freedom is driven from the classrooms.”

Other defendants in the lawsuit are the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, the board’s individual members, the Oklahoma Department of Education and the St. Isadore school. The Alliance Defending Freedom is among the defendants’ attorneys, according to court documents.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Education Law Center and Freedom From Religion Foundation are among the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

Meanwhile, Stitt has signed a bill to dissolve the Virtual Charter School Board for reasons unrelated to the St. Isadore case. In the change taking effect in 2024, the board will be combined with the state’s Charter School Board. The change is not expected to impact the St. Isadore decision, KOCO News 5 reported June 8.

Court upholds end of religious exemptions for vaccines in Connecticut

NEW YORK (BP) – A U.S. appeals court has upheld the elimination of religious exemptions for childhood vaccine requirements in Connecticut, the Associated Press reported Aug. 4.

The Connecticut Legislature in 2021 ended the state’s longstanding religious exemption for childhood immunization requirements for schools, colleges and day care facilities, citing public health concerns, but left medical exemptions in place.

We the Patriots USA Inc., the lead plaintiff in the case, objected to the change as a violation of religious freedom, a hostile act towards religious believers and an impediment to medical freedom and child rearing, citing the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

We the Patriots co-founder and president Brian Festa said the group will continue its appeal.

“We fully intend to seek review of this decision in the United States Supreme Court, to obtain equal justice for all children,” Festa said, “not only in Connecticut, but in every state in the nation.”

State Attorney General William Tong praised the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

“This decision is a full and resounding affirmation of the constitutionality and legality of Connecticut’s vaccine requirements. Vaccines save lives – this is a fact beyond dispute,” Tong said. “The legislature acted responsibly and well within its authority to protect the health of Connecticut families and stop the spread of preventable disease.”

The 2021 law grandfathered in religious exemptions that had been approved before the law was changed.

We the Patriots, a nonprofit based in Caldwell, Idaho, describes itself as a defender of religious, medical and educational freedoms, as well as parental rights, free enterprise, environmental safety and other concerns.