Charter School Act challenge cites ‘pervasively sectarian’ sponsor

A group challenging the constitutionality of Indiana’s Charter School Act argued in court filings this week that the sponsor of the school it named in its federal lawsuit “is pervasively sectarian and was allowed to reverse a discretionary decision of state officials.”

Grace College, which holds the charter for Seven Oaks Classical School Inc. in Ellettsville, “is an evangelical Christian community whose members accept scripture as the inerrant and inspired word of God,” the plaintiffs’ response brief claims. “It does not separate its theological mission from its educational mission, but applies biblical values globally in everything it does.”

Attorneys who argue Indiana’s Charter School Act violates the Establishment Clause and Article 1, Section 6 of the Indiana Constitution also bring an as-applied challenge regarding Seven Oaks. They argue its charter violates the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 holding in Bowen v. Kendrick, “that even if a statute aiding religion were valid on its face, individual applications of it can be unconstitutional if the particular organization possesses ‘pervasively sectarian’ characteristics.”

The arguments were raised in a brief filed Tuesday in opposition to Charter Oaks’ motion to dismiss the case filed in April by the Indiana Coalition for Public Education of Monroe County and South Central Indiana Inc. The groups of educators claim they were harmed because Seven Oaks “diverted more than $750,000 away from the public schools, and approximately $22,500 in state funds were paid to Grace College.”

In its motion to dismiss, Seven Oaks denies that it is sectarian, and that the statute under I.C. § 20-24-1-1 specifically names Grace College among entities that may receive state funding as the holder of charters to operate K-12 schools. The motion to dismiss also says plaintiffs have “not identified any conduct of either Grace College or Seven Oaks that violates the Establishment Clause.”

“The Coalition’s federal claims have no basis in First Amendment jurisprudence, which has long recognized that Congress and state legislatures need not and cannot categorically exclude religious institutions from participating in government initiatives or from receiving publicly available benefits to compensate them for their participation,” Seven Oaks argues.

“The participation of religiously affiliated colleges and universities in Indiana’s charter school program as charter authorizers is especially unobjectionable because the Act limits state financial support for the authorizing institutions to reimbursement of administrative expenses incurred in that role; the Act provides no state funding for the authorizing institutions’ day-to-day operations.”

The Indiana Supreme Court in 2013 upheld the constitutionality of the school vouchers in Meredith v. Pence, and Seven Oaks relies on that holding in its motion to dismiss to challenge to the Charter School Act. But plaintiffs argue Seven Oaks exaggerated the Supreme Court’s holding because Grace College is a religious institution rather than a “religiously affiliated” college, and therefore the state constitution’s Religious Benefits Clause prohibits its receipt of money from the state treasury.

Attorneys for the coalition are James A. Tanford and William Groth. Seven Oaks is represented by Thomas L. Shriner Jr. and Scott A. Harkness. The pleadings in Indiana Coalition for Public Education-Monroe County and South Central Indiana, Inc., v. Jennifer McCormick, et al., 1:17-CV-1295, are before Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson in the District Court for the Southern District of Indiana.

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