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Full interview: Okla. AG Drummond "disappointed" by St. Isidore vote

 headshot of Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond
Office of the Oklahoma Attorney General

BEN ABRAMS: Mr. Drummond, after the decision by the Virtual Charter School Board to approve the Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City's application, your office released a statement on Monday saying that the approval was unconstitutional and that legal action was likely. How likely? What are you expecting to happen?

GENTNER DRUMMOND: Well, I mean, to begin it is disappointing. My office provides counsel to the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board and we made it very clear that the approval of public funds to a charter school is a state actor. And if it's a parochial school, then it would be in violation of both the U.S. Constitution and the Oklahoma constitution. I wasn't surprised by the vote, but very disappointed that three board members who had taken an oath of office would violate that oath in the name, purportedly, of religious liberty, which frankly is the opposite. The vote itself does not injure the state of Oklahoma. However, once the contract is signed, then the matter is ripe for adjudication and you may anticipate that my office will file the appropriate pleading with the appropriate court to effectively prohibit the contract going forward.

BA: So, if the contract is signed, then there's a possibility that your office would take action. I know you said it's both unconstitutional, both in the Oklahoma constitution and the U.S. Constitution. If you were to take legal action, where would you start? Would you start here in Oklahoma first, or would you take it federally?

GD: No, no, it's an Oklahoma issue. You know, it's Oklahoma — although we would have standing to go in the federal court system, it's violative of the Oklahoma statutes and Oklahoma constitution. So we would file on action. And it's not conjecture, I mean, I will file on action. And the question is: is it going to be an Oklahoma County District Court or directly to the Oklahoma Supreme Court?

BA: The proponents of this did say that it was actually a positive for religious liberty, which — religious liberty is also a right in the Constitution, the state constitution, and the U.S. Constitution. You said it was the opposite. Can you elaborate on that?

GD: Right. Historically, Europeans fled the old world to the new world for the opportunity to worship in a manner of their choosing without the state — in that case, the country — sanctioning and limiting their choices. And today, religious liberty allows us to worship according to our faith and to be free from any duty that conflicts with our faith. So, by forcing Oklahomans to fund religious teachings with their tax dollars, it’s not religious freedom. It is state-sponsored religion, which violates the First Amendment — the first clause of the First Amendment. And frankly, the vote is effectively driving the stake in the heart of religious liberty. It's the opposite of what some proponents think.

BA: This is more of an editorial question for you rather than a legal question, but you seem to be very clear that it's an unconstitutional decision. Why do you then think proponents of it would say that it's still constitutional? What do you make of that?

GD: Oh, I think that they either are getting very bad legal advice or they are basically not taking the time to understand or read any statutory law or Constitutional law. It’s political fodder to say, ‘look at us, rah rah, we're supporting a Christian Church,’ and I think that's remarkable. And I think that the vast majority of Oklahomans are Christian, but by acting in this way with the Catholic Church then, you know, what about the Muslim Oklahoman funding this Christian school? Or the Jewish Oklahoman funding this Christian school? The day will turn where we're gonna get applicants from maybe a fringe Islamic group that says, ‘we want to teach Sharia Law and to only young men, and we want to indoctrinate them in this in this faith,’ which would be an anathema to a lot of Oklahomans. Or a Satanic organization that says, ‘we want state funding so that we can teach the attributes of Satan.’ I mean, that's an anathema to the vast majority of Oklahomans, and yet we've got state elected officials championing this illegal act saying it's in the best interest of religious freedom. I don't think they're thinking through what they're saying.

BA: There have been cases before in other states, I'm sure in Oklahoma as well, of there being some blurred lines between religious liberty and the lack of separation between church and state. This is more of an abstract question, but in your mind how concrete should that line be… the separation between church and state and Oklahoma? Because, sometimes, anything from invoking the name of God to adding a biblical verse in a speech or something like that is in our state politics. Where do you think the line legally is drawn?

GD: I think the line is bright and should always be bright: that if you are a state actor, there is a bright line between what you personally believe and what you publicly espouse, one. Two, if you are a state actor and you're using state funding, there is an absolute prohibition to those fundings being used in a parochial manner. And when I've said in the past the law is unclear, in Oklahoma, the law is clear that a charter school is a state actor. And in the 10th Circuit, it is clear that a charter school is a state actor. There are other circuit courts that may disagree with that and I think, therefore, it will be right for the U.S. Supreme Court at some point, either through this case or other cases, to make a determination whether a charter school is a public school, which is therefore a state actor, and therefore funding for a religious entity is prohibited. So, that's where I'm focused: upholding the rule of law. I swore an oath to our Oklahoma and U.S. Constitution to do that. I'm not the pitcher, I'm not the batter, I'm not the catcher. I'm the umpire. And in this instance, irrespective of how I might feel personally, it is clearly a violation of our laws that require that I protect religious freedom by adjudicating this issue and turning back this vote.

BA: Last question that I have for you before we wrap up is: you mentioned earlier how your concern that this could be, for lack of a better term, a slippery slope, that other religious organizations could see this as a pathway, should that be happening as well, maybe even before the contract is signed, will you be monitoring other applications or other things like that for similar concerns?

GD: Oh, certainly. We provide legal counsel to this board and other boards. And it's a matter of highest priority that we stay informed and advise boards that act on behalf of the state clearly the lay of the land and the rule of law.

BA: Gentner Drummond, attorney general for the state of Oklahoma. Sir, thank you so much for your time today.

GD: My pleasure, Ben. Thank you so much for the good work that KWGS does on a daily basis.

Ben Abrams is a news reporter and All Things Considered host for KWGS.
Check out all of Ben's links and contact info here.