A proposal to convert a Roman Catholic school in Chicago into a publicly funded charter school raises a "host of legal concerns," according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
In a Jan. 20 letter to Paul Vallas, superintendent of the Chicago Public School District, and Gery Chico, president of the school district's Board of Trustees, Americans United Litigation Counsel Ayesha Khan expressed serious reservation about the plan.
"Any such conversion would raise a host of legal concerns and would thus expose the school district to lengthy and costly litigation," Khan wrote.
Under the plan, St. Sabina Catholic School would temporarily close and then reopen under the control of a non-profit organization, allowing the school to receive public funding under the Illinois charter school law.
However, Americans United noted that the Illinois charter law forbids converting "any existing private, parochial or non-public school to a charter school."
"It appears that church and public school authorities think they can sidestep the law by temporarily closing St. Sabina's doors and painting a new name on the wall," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Public funds should be spent only on truly public schools."
Americans United also noted that the school would also have to offer open enrollment and abide by other regulations that govern public schools. As a result, St. Sabina would not be able to conform its curricula to Catholic teachings, give preference to Catholics in the hiring of employees or provide religious instruction before or after school.
"In short, in exchange for accepting public funds, St. Sabina would have to give up all of the things that makes it a Catholic school," Lynn said.
"In light of these serious and intractable problems, we urge the school district to adopt a strict interpretation of the state statute, by disallowing a parochial school to be converted into a charter school even when it shuts down and re-opens in the process," Khan's correspondence concluded. "In the event that you elect to allow the conversion, we will not hesitate to take legal action to remedy constitutional violations."
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.