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A national organization advocating for LGBTQ+ students at religiously affiliated schools joins Oklahoma’s Attorney General and others in denouncing the decision by a state board to approve the nation’s first-ever taxpayer-funded religious charter school.

Following a months-long review of their application, the Oklahoma State Virtual Charter School Board voted 3-2 to approve public funding for St. Isidore, a Catholic charter school.

Republicans like Governor Kevin Stitt and controversial State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters celebrated the decision as a win for evangelical conservatives. Meanwhile, the state’s attorney general has called the move “unconstitutional” and warned of “costly” litigation.

Joining those calls against the measure is the national director for the Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP). The organization advocates for rights and resources of LGBTQ+ students.

religious school
Photograph courtesy of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project (Photography by Kevin Truong)

“REAP knows that sectarian public schools will expose more LGBTQ+ students, and other students who do not fit the white, conservative Christian mold, to discrimination, harassment and abuse in classrooms that are supposed to be open and safe for all members of the public,” REAP Director Paul Carlos Southwick told The Black Wall Street Times via email on Tuesday.

Nation’s first publicly-funded religious school coming to Oklahoma?

Charter schools receive taxpayer funds and remain privately managed. Yet, Monday’s vote represents the first time a state has granted public funding to a religious school.

The close vote came after a previous no-vote. Notably, on the Friday before the vote, Republican House Speaker Charles McCall replaced long-time serving retired Lawton superintendent Barry Beauchamp with Brian Bobek, whose Monday vote secured the 3-2 victory.

It’s unclear if the vote to grant state funding to St. Isidore will hold up in court, but that hasn’t stopped some state leaders from celebrating the decision.

Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt and other conservative leaders have compared the nation and the state’s Constitutionally-required separation between church and state as “religious discrimination.”

“I applaud the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board’s courage to approve the authorization for St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School,” Stitt said in a statement on Monday. This is a win for religious liberty and education freedom in our great state, and I am encouraged by these efforts to give parents more options when it comes to their child’s education.”

Ryan Walters, the constantly controversial, far-right State Superintendent ran metaphorical victory laps after the vote, calling it a win for “school choice.”

“I encouraged the board to approve this monumental decision, and now the U.S.’s first religious charter school will be welcomed by my administration,” he said in a statement on Monday.

By Tuesday, Walters was back on Twitter with another of his notorious video updates from inside his car.

“We want every single child in the state of Oklahoma to have the best school possible and the best education system possible for their individual needs,” Walters said.

LGBTQ+ advocacy group REAP blasts Oklahoma’s approval of religious charter school

Yet according to REAP, breaking centuries of precedent to provide public funds to religious schools will further harm marginalized students and limit choice for parents.

“Many parents will also be discriminated against because many religious schools expel students who have same-sex parents, even if the student is not a member of the LGBTQ+ community,” Southwick said.

“Thousands of private religious schools and colleges are already heavily funded by taxpayer money. But this action by the Oklahoma school board raises the stakes,” he added.

Meanwhile, before a single lawsuit against the decision has been filed, Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond claims one of the State Virtual Charter School Board members was ineligible to vote.

AG’s Office cites state law claiming newly appointed board member was ineligible to vote

Drummond believes Brian Bobek, who unexpectly replaced long-time board member Barry Beauchamp just days before the vote, was ineligible to vote until November, according to emails exclusively obtained by Tulsa World.

According to the email sent out hours before the vote but allegedly not seen by members until after the vote, Deputy Attorney General Niki Batt notified board Chairman Robert Franklin and Executive Director Rebecca Wilkinson that state law prohibits Bobek from being seated until November 1.

“Members shall serve until their successors are duly appointed for a term of three (3) years. Appointments shall be made by and take effect on November 1 of the year in which the appointment is made,'” Batt wrote, citing state law.

“Indeed, it is my understanding that Mr. Beauchamp requested to be reappointed and was only made aware of his replacement on the afternoon of (Friday) June 2, 2023. Mr. Beauchamp’s continued service demonstrates that there was not a vacancy to warrant the immediate placement of Mr. Bobek on the Board. Accordingly, it is my opinion that pursuant to 51 O.S. § 15, Mr. Beauchamp should continue serving until his successor, Mr. Bobek, is duly qualified on November 1 pursuant to the provisions of 70 O.S. § 3-145.1(B).”

A “crusade” against public education?

While the state waits for highly expected legal challenges to the decision, a spokesman for House Republicans defended the board member switch-up ahead of the 3-2 vote.

“The speaker was simply filling an expired term,” Oklahoma House GOP spokesman Daniel Seitz said Tuesday, according to Tulsa World. “At no point was there any conversation about how Bobek would vote on something or any litmus test. The speaker gets recommendations from members of the (GOP) caucus and makes appointments.”

For advocates who support the separation of church and state, the decision represents a veiled attack on public education amidst a national climate hostile to teachers, Black students, LGBTQ+ students and others.

“The religious right’s crusade against public education has escalated,” Southwick said. 

Deon Osborne was born in Minneapolis, MN and raised in Lawton, OK before moving to Norman where he attended the University of Oklahoma. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Strategic Media and has...