Although the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the Constitution, the concept is based on the First Amendment, which reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Down through history, the union of church and state has resulted in great evils. Even today, in the twenty-first century, some countries have state religions or state churches. This includes not only Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia but also “Christian” countries like Norway and the United Kingdom.
Although they differ on the exact meaning and extent of the “separation of church and state,” most Americans — from the irreligious to the devout — oppose the United States having an official religion. They also prefer that the government not take tax money and give it to religious institutions.
Yet, when it comes to the subject of education, most Americans not only see a role for the government: they believe in the union of education and the state. What makes this even worse is when religion is involved.
Some religious conservatives are celebrating the establishment of the nation’s first religious charter school. I am not, even though I am also a religious and cultural conservative.
Charter schools are public schools. They are publicly funded schools managed by independent boards under the terms of a contract or charter with a state or local governmental authority. But they are still public schools that have to follow federal antidiscrimination laws; state academic standards, curriculum frameworks, and testing requirements; as well as provide education at no cost to pupils or parents. According to U.S. News & World Report, “Roughly 8% of public school students are enrolled in charters, according to the latest federal data, and even fewer, 1%, are enrolled in virtual charter schools.”
This past June, the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter Board, by a 3–2 vote, approved the establishment of the nation’s first religious charter school. The St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School is a joint project of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa. The initial vote in April was 5–0 against establishing the school. The school’s charter application specifically states that it will “operate the school as a Catholic School.” Members of the board are appointed by the state’s Republican governor, Kevin Stitt, a supporter of religious charter schools, and the state’s GOP-controlled legislature.
“This is a win for religious liberty and education freedom,” said Stitt. Yet, Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond reproved the governor in a statement: “The approval of any publicly funded religious school is contrary to Oklahoma law and not in the best interest of taxpayers. It’s extremely disappointing that board members violated their oath in order to fund religious schools with our tax dollars. In doing so, these members have exposed themselves and the state to potential legal action that could be costly.”
The CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Rachel Laser, likewise said in a statement: “It’s hard to think of a clearer violation of the religious freedom of Oklahoma taxpayers and public-school families than the state establishing the nation’s first religious public charter school. This is a sea change for American democracy.”
But it is not just liberals who oppose religious charter schools. Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, issued her own statement:
This decision runs afoul of state law and the U.S. Constitution. All charter schools are public schools, and as such must be non-sectarian. Charter schools were conceived as, and have always been, innovative public schools that provide an alternative for families who want a public school option other than the one dictated by their ZIP code. . . . The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City is trying to make charter schools into something they are not.
It is estimated that the new school will cost Oklahoma taxpayers up to $25.7 million over its first five years of operation.
Religious conservatives have lost their minds.
Procuring government money for a religious school is no victory for religious liberty.
If a religious school cannot get enough money to operate from tuition, donations, grants, corporate sponsors, or churches, then it should not open its doors.
What will Republican-controlled legislatures and boards do when Muslims or Satanists or atheists want government money to start their own charter schools? Will they then have to decide which religions or denominations qualify for state funds?
Are religious conservatives naïve enough to think that government funds will come with no strings attached? He that pays the piper calls the tune.
Religious charter schools operate the same way as regular charter schools and public schools: the government forcibly takes money from people through compulsory taxation and uses it to pay for the education of other people’s children.
In a free society, however, there should not be charter schools any more than there should be public schools.
School choice should never mean giving parents the choice of where to spend taxpayer money for the education of their children. Rather, parents should not be forced to hand over their own money to the government for any reason.
All education should be privately provided and privately funded.
Religious conservatives should devote their time, energy, and money to completely separating school from state, not yoking the two together.