Oklahoma voted this week to establish the first publicly funded religious charter school in the history of the United States. This government support for St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School opens up a world of disturbing — and fascinating — political possibilities. Permit me to draw just one of them to your attention.
Starting in 2024, public monies in the Sooner State will fund a parochial school in which Catholic precepts will saturate every aspect of the curriculum from math, to science, to gym. The rub is that Oklahoma is nearly 70 percent Protestant. This leads me to wonder how a member of an Evangelical church in Norman, Okla., might feel about subsidizing religious teachings with which he might strenuously disagree. His kids (presently) don’t have their own taxpayer-funded K-12 theological seminary at their disposal. His kids are thus not being granted what liberals like to call “equality of opportunity.”
As a scholar of American secularism, I’m neither surprised nor shocked that conservative Christianity is, yet again, being entangled with the government. Across the country, right-wing legal activists have been skillfully and methodically fusing the two for decades. In so doing, they have absolutely pulverized the nation’s secular status quo.
That status quo was based on the “wall of separation” that Thomas Jefferson championed in his 1802 Danbury Letter and the Warren Court built and fortified in the mid-20th century. In red states, this wall has been razed to the ground. On the federal level today, I’d be hard pressed to identify a coherent judicial or legislative commitment to separationism. Even in the bluest of states, the core ideas of separationism are routinely undermined. Where the wall once stood in American public life, there are now just stray crucifixes and assorted MAGA flags planted amidst the rubble.
The Oklahoma case will, of course, be subjected to numerous court challenges and appeals. If it does end up in front of the Supreme Court — which is precisely where those who masterminded St. Isidore likely want it to end up — it stands a good chance of being deemed constitutional by the court’s “religion-friendly” supermajority. That being said, Oklahoma’s innovation may overreach in ways that could be exploited by secularists.
Secularists, I stress, are not a monolith. They can be believers or nonbelievers. A Catholic mom in Utah who doesn’t want her daughter being taught Mormon theology in public school is, functionally, a secularist. She wants the state to be neutral in its relation with religions. She wants the state to not endorse or promote any one faith.
Some secularists might be “separationists.” They want to resurrect “the wall.” Some might subscribe to a differing approach known as “non-preferential accommodationism.” They seek to have the state support all religions but without a preference for any one. Still others may advocate approaches that stress equality of all believers and nonbelievers.
Before getting to that, permit me to note that the Christian right is uncannily skilled at locating vulnerabilities in classic separationist ideas. St. Isidore is a charter school. Its charter status could let those who engineered this initiative argue that there is no breach of state neutrality because all religious groups are free to erect state-funded charter schools. Let’s leave aside the obvious fact that not all religious groups could afford (or want) to do so. The Christian right saw charter schools as a constitutionally compelling target of opportunity. And they struck. But did they strike wisely?