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Oklahoma education leader claims church/state separation is "state-sponsored atheism"
Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters is, once again, using his position to promote Christian Nationalism
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I sincerely hope that all of you, one day, find something you are as passionate about as Ryan Walters is when it comes to becoming the King of Christian Nationalism.
Walters is Oklahoma’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, and he’s used that position to push religion and right-wing propaganda in public schools as much as the law will allow… even when the law doesn’t allow it. (Especially when the law doesn’t allow it.)
He was a driving force in getting state officials to approve the nation’s first religious charter school, St. Isidore of Seville Virtual Catholic Charter School—a move that has already resulted in a major lawsuit. He approved the use of PragerU materials in public school classrooms. He claimed the Tulsa Race Massacre had nothing to do with race. He’s falsely insisted that President Joe Biden “wants to destroy our Christian faith.” He formed a faith committee to examine prayer in public schools; the committee, full of conservative Christian pastors, soon recommended putting the Ten Commandments in every classroom.
On Wednesday, he even sent out a “sample prayer” for teachers to use for the people of Israel (and definitely not the innocent people living in the Gaza Strip).
It’s all stuff you might expect from a graduate of fundamentalist Harding University in Arkansas. But not something that a responsible government official would ever do. Walters, however, isn’t a responsible guy. He’s a religious zealot who wants to use the government to advance his religion.
Here’s a perfect example of that.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation recently learned that a public school teacher in Tulsa put up a display in the classroom featuring John 3:16 (“For GOD so loved the world that he gave his only SON that whoever believes in him should not perish but have ETERNAL LIFE”).
Another classroom, FFRF said, had a sign referencing a different Bible verse: “He is still good.”
It’s all obviously inappropriate and the group wrote a letter to the school district saying as much. The letter worked. The school district acknowledged the problem and removed the Christian symbols:
“The district violates the Constitution when it allows schools to display religious symbols or messages,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Missy Bush.
Superintendent Missy Bush responded to FFRF stating that the displays have been taken down.
FFRF said the state/church watchdog is pleased with the district's quick response and willingness to uphold the US Constitution.
Great. Problem solved.
But when Ryan Walters heard about the situation, he went into action. Not to affirm the separation of church and state, of course, but to remind teachers that they shouldn’t let the law get in the way of any attempted proselytizing.
This is the memo he sent to public educators yesterday:
It has come to my attention that a school district in Oklahoma has received a letter from a Wisconsin-based radical secular activist organization demanding the removal of teachers' personal displays from their classroom walls. The targeted displays include a sign displaying the vaguely spiritual text "He is still good," and a sign with the Bible verse John 3:16.
This type of letter substitutes demands for legal reasoning. The activist organization attempts to portray religion as a "divisive force in public schools", while creating the divisive atmosphere itself by attempting to bully a rural school district with an anonymous "complainant.". These demands inappropriately tell school districts to place atheism as the state religion. Thankfully, the activists' arguments are misguided and outdated.
These demands rely on the old Lemon test. Radical secular activists have failed to note an important change in the law: the Supreme Court of the United States finally cast away the infamous Lemon test. In Kennedy v. Bremerton Sch. Dist.., the Supreme Court overruled Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U .S. 602 (1971). See 142 5. Ct. 2407, 2427 (2022). Now, when courts interpret the Establishment Clause, they look to "historical practices and understandings" of the practice at issue. Id. at 2428. Cases that rely on Lemon as their foundation, such as the cases relied on in radical secular activist demands, are no longer a valid basis to demand action from schools.
Schools now face the open question of how to address First Amendment free exercise rights under existing law. Although public employees' speech receives an "interest-balancing test set out in" Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563 (1968), "the Court has never before applied Pickering balancing to a claim brought under the Free Exercise Clause." Kennedy, 142 5. Ct. at 2433 (Thomas, J., concurring). In effect, some existing cases on schools rely on an overturned case, while the rules regarding a Free Exercise claim of teacher speech have yet to be determined.
With these changes in mind, if you receive any letters from similar activist organizations, please forward them to my office for assistance. I do not want to see Oklahoma school districts become complicit in promoting atheism, and I intend to pay close attention to schools that simply surrender to such demands. If you provide a copy of the letter to your regional accreditation officer before responding, they can ensure that the Department is able to review and assist your district in standing their ground against unwarranted demands from radical secular activists.
He’s big mad. And he’s full of shit.
The fact that FFRF is based in Wisconsin is irrelevant. (It’s not like Walters would suddenly accept the arguments if they were headquartered in Oklahoma.)
Pretending that FFRF is “radical” because they asked a teacher to stop proselytizing just gives away the game. Walters lives in a Christian bubble where government neutrality on religion is treated as de facto atheism. FFRF didn’t (and wouldn’t) ask teachers to promote atheism in the classroom or make “atheism… the state religion”; they just want to make sure public school teachers aren’t pushing Christianity on kids. Walters treats neutrality as persecution because he thinks we live in a theocracy. (The perils of going to a fundamentalist college, I’m sure...)
As for the legal garbage he cites, you don’t have to be a lawyer to know his logic makes no sense here. The Lemon Test was a three-prong approach the Supreme Court once relied on to determine whether a particular government action violated the separation of church and state. The current right-wing court has effectively said that test is no longer in effect—which isn’t surprising since they hadn’t used it in decades. But that doesn’t nullify the principle of church/state separation! It just removes one useful tool from a judge’s toolbox. The Establishment Clause is still in the Constitution. It is still in effect. It hasn’t gone away. (For what it’s worth, FFRF did not mention the Lemon Test anywhere in its letter.)
To put that another way, if a public school teacher pushes Jesus on children, as those teachers in Oklahoma were clearly doing, it would still be illegal.
Walters released a briefer, yet even more deranged, version of this letter on X/Twitter:
I will always stand by our teachers exercising their First Amendment rights. Here in Oklahoma, we are not going to let a radical secular organization out of Wisconsin bully our schools and teachers. This is a group that is vehemently opposed to the values of the Constitution and who should be ashamed of their vulture-like approach to attacking teachers. They are pushing an agenda that says state-sponsored atheism is the only acceptable religion, and we are going to stand firm against that radical secularism. I feel pity for these woke, elitist lawyers who have decided that there is no greater calling in life than to make sure teachers aren't practicing their Faith.
He’s a professional asshole acting in the name of Jesus.
No one at FFRF gives a shit if teachers practice their faith. It only crosses a line when teachers push faith on their public school students. Walters would understand this perfectly well if we were talking about a Muslim or atheist teacher instead of a Christian one, but he knows damn well his role is to elevate Christianity at the expense of everyone else’s beliefs. (And we know damn well no Muslim or atheist teacher would ever pull a similar stunt.)
No one’s attacking teachers. No one’s attacking religion. No one’s trying to censor teachers or prevent them from exercising their faith. There are only constitutional lawyers at FFRF whose job is protecting freedom of religion for everyone, something Walters knows nothing about.
Walters is giving teachers license to shove religion in students’ faces by offering bad legal advice. If and when they get taken to court, they will lose. And Walters won’t give a damn because he’s not in the business of making life better for public school teachers. His entire career has been dedicated to replacing public education with religious indoctrination. He’s not about to stop now.
Besides voting for a more sensible candidate next time around, every teacher in the state should just treat anything Walters sends them like this guy: