UCC pastor brings lawsuit against religious charter school as ‘a matter of faith’

A Catholic virtual school in Oklahoma is raising questions on the separation of church and state in education.

The Rev. Lori Walke, pastor of Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ in Oklahoma City, is one of 10 plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit contesting the authorization of St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School to become a state charter school. Other plaintiffs include public school parents, public education advocates and faith leaders.

The school, approved in June by the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, would become the country’s first publicly funded religious charter school.

Opposing discrimination

Walke said she has worked with Americans United for several years as a pastor committed to the separation of church and state.

She describes her experience of pastoring queer and nonbinary teens and LGBTQ+ families as one of the motivators for being involved in this lawsuit.

“Religious schools have a track record of discriminating against students who do not ascribe to particular dogmas, doctrine or creeds,” she said. “All of us have heard stories of religious schools rejecting or unenrolling students because they do not look, act or believe in ways that particular traditions deem orthodox. It would be clergy malpractice to remain silent as a religious school tries to masquerade as a place that serves all students the way our public schools actually do.

“If religious schools are allowed to take money away from public schools and further the agenda to defund and dismantle public schools, families and students will be forced to practice someone else’s religion in order to access education.”

Contested vote

The vote to approve the charter school was controversial. It passed by a single vote, and the vote in favor of the measure from Brian Bobek has been contested, as he was abruptly appointed to the board by Oklahoma House speaker Charles McCall just days before the vote. Without his vote, the measure would fail.

The state’s attorney general, Gentner Drummond, called the charter schools’ approval unconstitutional and noted the likelihood of it resulting in costly legal action for the state and the charter school’s board.

Oklahoma State Superintendent Ryan Walters, listed as a defendant in the case, has claimed that the plaintiffs bringing the lawsuit against the school are engaging in an act of “religious persecution” against the faith exercised within the St. Isidore of Seville school.

‘A matter of faith’

Walke, also a licensed attorney, noted how her legal education informs her understanding of “the ways the founding fathers both acknowledged this country’s deep spirituality and the safeguards they put in place to keep extremists and fundamentalists from forcing particular beliefs on the rest of us.”

“Often, the work to defend the separation of church and state is cast as ‘anti-religion,’ but when people are forced to practice a particular religion or someone else’s religion, it’s not faith, but coercion,” she said. “Coercion is the opposite of faith. To use theological language, it is sin.

“To that end, defending the separation of church and state is a responsibility of the church, as a matter of faith.”

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Categories: United Church of Christ News

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