Notre Dame Religious Liberty Clinic Defends Catholic Charter School’s Mission to Expand Educational Options for Underserved Children

Author: Notre Dame Law School

School Children

Oklahoma Educators Pursue Diverse School Choice Amidst Legal Challenge

For more than 100 years, the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa have served families in Oklahoma through schools that offer children an authentically Catholic education that forms and prepares them to be engaged, productive, and conscientious members of their community. Recently, they embarked on an innovative effort to extend this educational tradition and expand access to educational opportunities statewide through the opening of a virtual charter school. Through a virtual school, the dioceses hope to open the doors to a high-quality Catholic education to the many families who currently lack that opportunity — especially families in Oklahoma’s many rural areas, including many Hispanic and Native communities. St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School is due to open in the Fall of 2024 and will also provide a much-needed opportunity for the many Oklahoma children who find traditional schooling difficult or frustrating due to learning differences.

On July 31, 2023, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of a group of plaintiffs by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and other groups, seeking to prevent St. Isidore from opening and offering families in Oklahoma a charter-school option that is rooted in faith. On September 20, 2023, St. Isidore filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the First Amendment prohibits the State of Oklahoma from enforcing the kind of religious discrimination that the plaintiffs seek to impose against St. Isidore. The motion argues that St. Isidore — like all other private educators — has the right to contribute to Oklahoma’s effort to “promote a diversity of educational choices for Oklahoma families” through the charter-school program.

Notre Dame Law School’s Religious Liberty Clinic has helped the dioceses secure approval to operate a Catholic charter school and represents the school in the lawsuit, along with attorneys from Dechert LLP.

“St. Isidore will offer the gift of a high-quality Catholic education to underserved students who would otherwise lack access to it,” said John Meiser, director of the Religious Liberty Clinic. “By welcoming faith-based charter schools, Oklahomans uphold the freedom for all people — religious or not — to serve our communities and extend educational opportunities to all children.”

Faith-based schools have the potential to offer a unique educational vision that contributes in new ways to the diversity of educational options that charter-school programs offer parents.

“Every child in Oklahoma deserves to thrive in an educational environment that best suits their specific needs while striving to reach their full God-given potential ― whether that be in a public school, home school, or private school,” said Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and Bishop David A. Konderla of the Diocese of Tulsa in a joint statement. “With underserved students in mind, a new option will soon be available to families statewide with Oklahoma’s first virtual school based on the Catholic tradition of excellence in education.”

"Access to private education can be limited by affordability and proximity. The pandemic prompted us to see technology as a bridge to provide education to all,” said Brett Farley, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma. “We are proud to assist in this important effort to ensure that all children ― and especially those from communities and families most in need ― will have another high-quality educational opportunity to choose from.”

The State’s approval of St. Isidore’s charter-school application upholds the First Amendment’s vital guarantee that the government may not discriminate against or disfavor people because of their religious beliefs. Indeed, in cases like Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue and Carson v. Makin, the Supreme Court has made clear that the Constitution prohibits states from denying religious organizations the right to contribute to programs to serve the public good.

High Quality Education for Underserved Students

"Since their inception in the 1990s, charter schools have fostered diversity, creativity, and choice in K12 education ― and, importantly, have given disadvantaged children an alternative to schools that fail them. St. Isidore joins thousands of Catholic schools which have long provided high-quality educational options for the children who need them most,” said Nicole Stelle Garnett, a nationally recognized expert in the field of education law who serves as the John P. Murphy Foundation Professor of Law and associate dean for external engagement at Notre Dame Law School. “The Oklahoma Virtual Charter School Board's decision to authorize St. Isidore advances the goals of combating inequality and enhancing educational pluralism, which ensures that all families may find and choose the school that is the best fit for the individual needs of their own children.”

"My work for the Religious Liberty Clinic and St. Isidore has hit close to home. I grew up in a rural area and was not able to attend Catholic school — partly because of the expense and partly because of my geographical location,” said Bernadette Shaughnessy, a third-year student at Notre Dame Law School and student fellow in the Religious Liberty Clinic. “It is an unbelievable privilege to help rural Oklahomans receive an affordable, quality education that will support their faith."

Originally published by Notre Dame Law School at on September 22, 2023.