December 2023 Church & State Magazine - December 2023

The Wall basher: Ryan Walters is trying to erase the separation of church and state in Oklahoma

  Liz Hayes

At his first public meeting as Oklahoma’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Ryan Walters signaled the prominent role Christian Nationalism would have in his leadership of the state’s public education system: His predecessor had opened meetings of the Oklahoma State Board of Education by calling for a moment of silence following the Pledge of Allegiance and salute to Oklahoma’s flag but Walters led attendees in prayer.

Walters: To him, the separation of church and state is a ‘myth’ (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Unlike last year, the board no longer makes recordings of its meetings readily available online, but media coverage of the Jan. 26, 2023, meeting indicated Walters’ prayer referenced his “school choice” goals. Board minutes show Walters has opened all this year’s meetings with prayers.

Inserting religion into a government meeting is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Walters’ Christian Nationalist agenda. He’s made infusing religion into Oklahoma’s public schools and denouncing church-state separation a centerpiece of his administration, alongside advancing private school vouchers and attacking public school curriculum, books and policies that address racism, diversity, gender identity, human sexuality or anything he deems to be “liberal indoctrination.” As a result, Walters has quickly become a nationally recognized conservative culture warrior.

“The Supreme Court has been wrong. There is no separation of church and state in the Constitution or Declaration of Independence. It doesn’t exist,” Walters said in September at the Pray Vote Stand Summit hosted in Washington, D.C., by the Family Research Council, a prominent member of the Shadow Network of Christian Nationalist organizations working to undermine church-state separation and American democracy. (Claiming that church-state separation isn’t in the Constitution is such a common talking point of Christian Nationalists that Americans United created a resource debunking this falsehood; it’s available at au.org/separation-of-church-and-state-constitution.) 

“We will bring God back to schools and prayer back in schools in Oklahoma and fight back against that radical myth,” Walters vowed, according to media reports.

Walters’ crusade to insert more prayer in public schools was clear in February when he announced the formation of a faith-based committee to “advise and recommend guidance to local school systems on how to protect every student and parents’ freedom to worship.” Rather than protect public schoolchildren by ensuring they get to decide whether and when to pray or participate in religious activities, Walters and his advisers have made clear they want students to pray and be exposed to Christianity. 

Walters said establishing the committee was inspired by “a letter that I received from religious and community leaders asking that I take a deep look at prayer in school and the role of faith in our K-12 schools,” according to KOSU public radio. The radio report noted the distinct Christian, and Christian Nationalist, leanings of the letter’s authors: “Notably, none of the faith leaders espouse a religion other than Christianity, and one of the six represented organizations is founded on Christian nationalism.”

The letter was headlined: “God In Public Schools: Restoring the Foundations of American Education.” The writers went on to say, “We request that you form an advisory group to study the issue of allowing corporate prayer and the acknowledgment of God in our classrooms and make recommendations.”

Five of the letter’s six signers were named to Walters’ Oklahoma Advisory Committee on Founding Principles, and the recommendations they announced in June included having Walters “enforce” a full minute of silence daily in public schools; mandating the display of the Ten Commandments in every public school classroom; and adding a Western Civilization course to high school graduation requirements.

In introducing the committee’s recommendations, Walters began his remarks by criticizing the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1962 ruling in Engel v. Vitale, which struck down school-sponsored prayer in public schools. Walters likened government neutrality on religion to government-sponsored atheism, a common refrain of his.

“Atheism is now the de facto and sponsored religion, and it is indefensible in a place like Oklahoma that we would allow this to happen,” Walters said, according to a report in the Tulsa World. “A long history of Supreme Court positions have created, in fact, a state-sponsored religion: atheism. The false narrative that has been touted regarding the separation of church and state has also created this idea that honoring one’s faith, [that] religion in the classroom, should be prohibited. This is a fallacy.”

In The Oklahoman’s report on the recommendations, the paper described Walters as believing “the promotion of faith in classrooms was a way to restore morality and combat his political opponents.”

Although Oklahoma already has a law in place requiring a daily minute of silence in public schools, Walters’ advisers want to make sure schools are providing the full minute and also require them to announce the following beforehand: “We now pause for a minute of silence in which students and teachers may use this minute to reflect, meditate, pray, or engage in any other silent activity.”

Walters said he was moving forward with the minute-of-silence requirement. “We will be coming back soon with actions around the other recommendations. We are looking at all options,” he said of the Ten Commandments displays and Western Civilization course, according to The Oklahoman.

A requirement that schools display a “durable poster or framed copy of the Ten Commandments in a publicly visible location” would build on an existing state law of dubious constitutionality that allows public schools and government buildings to display “certain historical documents, monuments and writings” of importance to American or Oklahoma history; the law explicitly includes the U.S. and Oklahoma Constitutions, the Declaration of Independence and the Ten Commandments in these documents. The law was signed in 2018 in response to the state Supreme Court requiring that a Ten Commandments monument be removed from state Capitol grounds and voters refusing to remove church-state separation protections from the state Constitution in a ballot initiative.

Walters’ advisers’ third recommendation for a Western Civilization echoes his campaign promise that every Oklahoma history teacher would be trained in a patriotic education curriculum developed by the conservative Christian Hillsdale College in Michigan, according to the Tulsa World.

Shortly after that June meeting, one of the people identified as a member of Walters’ advisory committee Masood Abdul-Haqq, the board chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Oklahoma and the congregational president of Masjid Mu’min mosque in Oklahoma City came forward to say he had only partially participated in one virtual meeting of the committee, didn’t consider himself to be a member and was not endorsing the committee’s recommendations. 

Media reports raised the possibility that Abdul-Haqq’s name was attached to the committee to help counter criticism of its Christian Nationalist agenda. “I don’t like the idea of being used as a pawn, you know, in some political game,” he told The Oklahoman.

Committee members Wade Burleson, a retired Southern Baptist pastor and president of an “educational and religious non-profit that exists to make Christ known to the nations,” and the Rev. Stephen Hamilton, pastor of St. Monica Catholic Church in Edmond, denied that the committee was trying to advance Christian Nationalism. 

“In accord with the diverse composition of our committee, our recommendations are non-sectarian and non-partisan,” said Hamilton, the committee’s chairman, according to the Tulsa World.

But nine of the 10 publicly identified committee members are either Christian faith leaders, have spoken of their Christian faith in news reports or are affiliated with Christian churches or organizations; the religious affiliation of a 10th member couldn’t be determined. Three of the members are Republicans who unsuccessfully sought elected office. One is the founder of the national group Pastors for Trump, and one is president of a conservative political action committee in Oklahoma.

Walters publicly advocated for coercive prayer in public schools or at school events at least two other times this year. In July, he staged a press conference to defend Tulsa Public School Board Member E’Lena Ashley after she was criticized for inviting students and families to join her in an explicitly Christian prayer during a Tulsa high school graduation ceremony in May. 

“I pray in the name of Jesus Christ that each one of you would walk forward from this moment in the excellence and love of God, that he would guide you, direct you and draw you to your ultimate goal. In the name of Jesus,” Ashley said from the podium to the students at East Central High School, according to news reports.

Members of the community complained about the prayers, and Tulsa School Board President Stacey Woolley told Ashley in an email that her prayers were unconstitutional and violated students’ religious freedom. Ashley was defiant, and Walters rushed to defend her.

“I want to thank E’Lena Ashley for her stand for religious freedom,” Walters said at the July press conference that was attended by as many protesters as supporters, according to the Tulsa World. “There is no more fine example today that religious liberty is under assault than what’s happening here in Tulsa Public Schools. You have a school board member who uses her freedom of expression to say a prayer, and what do you see? You see the radical left who want to shout her down.”

At the time of Ashley’s prayer controversy, Walters was threatening to revoke Tulsa Public Schools’ accreditation; at the press conference, he indicated the administration’s handling of Ashley’s prayer would factor into the forthcoming accreditation decision. Walters spent much of the past year squaring off against Tulsa Public Schools administrators and using the state’s largest school district where 80 percent of the student body is non-white, according to the Associated Press as a foil for his culture-war rhetoric. (The district’s accreditation was approved “with deficiencies” in August.)

This fall, Walters again promoted prayer in public schools when he issued an executive memo urging every school in Oklahoma to have a “moment of silence and prayer for Israel” on Oct. 12. He even went so far as to disseminate a sample prayer for schools to use: “Let us offer a prayer for safety and peace for the people of Israel. We pray that violence against the Jewish nation should stop and that a time of healing occurs for those lost. We pray for our leaders to stand strong and defend any attacks against the Israeli people.”

It was one of two memos Walters issued that week dealing with religion in schools. A day after the Israel memo, Walters wrote to the state’s school districts to urge them to ignore any correspondence with “a radical secular organization out of Wisconsin.” Although he didn’t name the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the memo was viewed as a response to Wisconsin-based FFRF’s recent demand that an Oklahoma school district stop displaying Bible quotes in two classrooms.

Walters typically is fast to resort to name-calling in the face of people who support true religious freedom and church-state separation. In April, a number of citizens several of them Christian faith leaders spoke at a meeting of the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board in opposition to the creation of the nation’s first religious public charter school, St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School.

The school’s opponents cited their objection to taxpayers being forced to fund a religious charter school that intends to indoctrinate students in one particular faith and discriminate against students, families and employees who don’t adhere to its religious tenets. The opponents noted the school would violate religious freedom and church-state separation as promised by the Oklahoma Constitution.

Walters grossly mischaracterized and dismissed their concerns as being anti-Catholic: “You’ve heard from some radical leftists that their hatred for the Catholic Church blinds them in doing what’s best for kids. Their hatred for the Catholic Church has caused them to attack our very foundational religious liberties and attack this school and this application.” (Americans United and allies have sued to block the creation of St. Isidore; read more in “Not OK!” in the September 2023 issue of Church & State.)

Similarly, when Americans United in October launched an investigation into how Oklahoma education officials could have approved propaganda videos from conservative Prager University for use in the state’s public schools, Walters again went on the attack. He called AU a “democrat-backed, George Soros shell company” and defended PragerU as “an antidote to left-wing indoctrination, and I’m proud to ensure left-wing bias-free materials are available in every classroom in our state.” (Learn more about AU’s investigation in “Lackluster Video” in the November 2023 issue.)

Reporters have repeatedly reached out to Americans United President and CEO Rachel Laser this year for comment on Walters’ and other Oklahoma officials’ actions and rhetoric that undermine church-state separation and public education.

“We owe it to our children to ensure their public schools provide a high-quality education that is free from religious coercion and rooted in facts, not theology or political ideology,” Laser said in a media statement in October. “Christian Nationalists are trying to use the machinery of the state to impose their religious beliefs on all of our children and to get taxpayers to fund this. Not on our watch.”

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