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Oklahoma’s Bible requirement is a part of a broader Rightwing assault

Originally published: The Progressive Magazine on July 3, 2024 by John Thompson (more by The Progressive Magazine)  | (Posted Jul 08, 2024)

Oklahoma’s State Superintendent Ryan Walters made national headlines on June 27 when he sent a memo to Oklahoma school districts to, according to The Washington Post, “‘incorporate the Bible, which includes the Ten Commandments,’ into curriculum for fifth through twelfth grades, effective immediately.” The New York Times added that Walters is “a bombastic figure in Oklahoma politics and an unapologetic culture warrior in education,” who, before announcing the policy, “backed an effort to create the nation’s first religious charter school in Oklahoma,” which the Oklahoma Supreme Court blocked two days earlier.

Oklahoma-based journalist Dylan Goforth doubted Walters’s ability to implement his directive, tweeting, “He won’t, and knows he can’t, enforce this. But he’ll get on Fox News for it so a win’s a win.” And Oklahoma Watch reported that Walters’s department of education has a contract with Heritage Foundation-affiliated Vought Strategies to land national television appearances for the superintendent despite legislative efforts to stop self-promotion at taxpayer expense. Vought Strategies was hired to book media interviews and write rightwing op-eds for $200 per hour, with the possibility of charging the state $210,000 or more.

Walters’s battle to push Christian nationalism was preceded earlier in June by the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling that the “Oklahoma Department of Education and state schools Superintendent Ryan Walters do not have the authority to establish policies concerning books in an individual school district’s libraries.”

Even so, as The Oklahoman reporter Murray Evans explained, on June 25, Walters’s latest administrative rules were “quietly approved” by Republican governor Kevin Stitt. These rules:

Tie school accreditation to the results of high-stakes student testing; establish new teacher behavior policies; ban diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs in schools; mandate a minute of silence; and change a policy regarding longtime providers of training for local school boards after state schools.

Beyond book-banning and Bible orders, both Stitt and Walters have strongly advocated for the St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School to be approved as a state-funded charter school. The Oklahoma Voice explained that, according to the state’s archdiocese officials,

St. Isidore would be open to students of all faiths or no faith, but it would be an environment that is Catholic in all ways… The school would be a ‘genuine instrument of the church’ and would take part in the Catholic Church’s evangelizing mission.

But the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that, “Under Oklahoma law, a charter school is a public school . . . . As such, a charter school must be nonsectarian.” Justice James Winchester explained the Oklahoma Charter Schools Act requires charter schools “be nonsectarian in their programs, admission policies, and other operations.”

Ryan Walters responded on Twitter, posting, “I will never stop fighting for Oklahomans’ constitutional, God-given right to express their religious belief.” And Stitt hopes the U.S. Supreme Court will reverse the ruling, explaining:

I’m concerned we’ve sent a troubling message that religious groups are second-class participants in our education system. Charter schools are incredibly popular in Oklahoma—and all we’re saying is: We can’t choose who gets state dollars based on a private entity’s religious status.

In addition to appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, as Oklahoma Watch’s Jennifer Palmer observed,

The St. Isidore decision could accelerate efforts by the Republican supermajority at the Oklahoma Legislature to change the composition of the state Supreme Court.

And that brings us back to what I believe is the most dangerous Oklahoma rightwing attack on the rule of law that, fortunately, had been defeated in the legislative session. Up until the 1960s, the state Supreme Court was completely corrupt, accepting bribes of up to $150,000. After federal investigators successfully prosecuted felonies committed by justices and lawyers, a Judicial Nominating Commission was formed. Since then, the Court has earned a reputation for integrity.

Even so, Stitt tried, unsuccessfully, to get rid of the Commission, opening the door to the type of rampant corruption that undermined our democracy for generations. It looked like Oklahoma had dodged the local equivalent to the corporate campaigns to control today’s U.S. Supreme Court, but the fight, apparently, isn’t over.

On the other hand, the chaos that Stitt and Walters seek could backfire. The Satanic Temple, for example, has announced official plans to bring its Hellion Academy of Independent Learning into Oklahoma public schools. And during the recent primary, dark money and personal animus, often spurred by Republican leaders of the Senate and the House, the state superintendent, and the governor, as well as the so-called “bar fight” where an out-of-state rightwinger pursued Representative Tom Cole’s seat in Washington, indicate that the majority party is descending into disarray.

Except for “purple” urban districts, most Oklahomans are extremely conservative, but initiative petitions show reasons for hope. As Tulsa World reminds us,

In 2016, Oklahoma voters rejected a state question that would have amended the state constitution to remove language barring the use of public funds for religious purposes.

What’s more, Walters’s surprise edict would have to be implemented by August 7. So, immediately after being legally prohibited from banning books like The Kite Runner, and losing the fight for a publicly-funded Christian virtual charter school, he’s only giving schools less than five weeks to implement a Bible curriculum.

And, unless they can quickly undermine the rule of law, Walters and Stitt will have to fight these battles as they deal with investigations of their shared history of financial scandals, and Walters’s mishandling of federal funds. But, as in the case of  St. Isidore Virtual School, Walters’s attacks on DEI, the mandate to put Bibles in the classroom, and to teach from a Christian Nationalist perspective, as well as seeking to undermine the Oklahoma Supreme Court, they will likely continue to push for an extreme rightwing, anti-public school agenda.


John Thompson Award-winning historian and retired Oklahoma City teacher; author of A Teacher’s Tale: Learning, Loving, and Listening to Our Kids.

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