Suit takes aim at Indiana religious-affiliated charter schools

A Monroe County nonprofit organization has sued the state and a charter school, seeking to block its funding because the group argues that taking tax dollars from public schools for the benefit of private religious institutions violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The Indiana Coalition for Public Education of Monroe County and South Central Indiana Inc. on Tuesday sued state education officials and the Seven Oaks Classical School. The K-8 school in Ellettsville opened in 2016 under a charter issued to Grace College in Winona Lake. But while the suit targets Seven Oaks, it also argues more broadly that religious institutions should be restricted from chartering schools that receive public money.

ICPE includes Monroe County public schoolteachers and employees who will be harmed by the diversion of tax dollars to public schools, according to the complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana.  The complaint “challenges the constitutionality of portions of the Indiana Charter Schools Act on their face and as applied to the authorization of a charter for Seven Oaks Classical School by Grace College and Seminary.”

The suit asserts funding for the charter school, part of which is received by Grace College, violates not just the Establishment Clause but also the Indiana Constitution’s prohibition in Article 1, Section 6 against drawing money from the treasury for the benefit of a religious institution. The suit seeks declaratory judgments that sections of the Charter School Act are unconstitutional; that the charter issued to Seven Oaks is invalid; and an injunction blocking state money from being distributed to the school.

Terry English, an attorney member of the board of directors of Seven Oaks, said Tuesday the school had not yet been served with a copy of the suit and would not immediately comment. But English said the school believes it’s on sound legal footing.

“Seven Oaks has followed Indiana law,” he said. “Grace College is an authorizer under Indiana law, and we believe we followed the law in its entirety.”

“Our chief concern is that Indiana law permits religious institutions like Grace College to decide whether to authorize charter schools,” Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer, chair of ICPE–Monroe County, said in a statement announcing the suit. “Charter schools are taxpayer-supported and take money away from our school corporations, so only state and local officials answerable to the public should be able to authorize them.”

ICPE said Grace College and Seminary describes itself as an evangelical Christian institution that applies biblical values to its educational mission, emphasizes a biblical worldview, and teaches students to recognize scripture as the inerrant and inspired word of God.

The complaint also challenges a provision in state law that gives up to 3 percent of a charter school’s public funds to the authorizer — in this case, Grace College and Seminary. “That would seem to violate the Indiana Constitution, which says flatly that no money may be drawn from the treasury for the benefit of any religious institution,” lead attorney Alex Tanford, professor emeritus at Indiana University Maurer School of Law, said in the statement.

The suit alleges three counts: that delegating the decision to authorize a charter school to a religious institution violates the Establishment Clause; that providing tax dollars to religious institutions for authorizing charter schools violates the Establishment Clause; and that giving public money to religious institutions violates the Indiana Constitution.

Along with Seven Oaks, the suit names Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick, who chairs the State Board of Education, as well as James Bentley, executive director of the Indiana Charter School Board. The case is before Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson.

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