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Oklahoma's virtual charter school board to hire designated hate group as legal counsel in defense of taxpayer-funded Catholic school authorization

  (From left to right) Board members Nellie Sanders, Scott Strawn and William Pearson listen to the Attorney General Office's representative at an April 2023 board meeting.
Beth Wallis
StateImpact Oklahoma
(From left to right) Board members Nellie Sanders, Scott Strawn and William Pearson listen to the Attorney General Office's representative at an April 2023 board meeting.

Oklahoma’s statewide virtual charter school board voted Monday to hire legal representation from an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center labels as a hate group.

The decision preempts potential lawsuits the board could face over its decision to approve the nation’s first publicly funded Catholic charter school, St. Isidore of Seville.

The board voted 3-1 to hire the Alliance Defending Freedom as its national litigation group. ADF’s designation as a hate group stems from, among other things, its defense of state-sanctioned sterilization of transgender people and support of recriminalizing sexual acts between consenting LGBTQ+ adults.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, ADF became “one of the most influential groups informing the [Trump] administration’s attack on LGBTQ rights.”

According to its website, ADF does “the hard things to which God has called us with the expectation that He will accomplish His purposes.” It was co-founded by conservative evangelical James Dobson, who also founded Focus on the Family.

The board also hired Oklahoma City attorney Cheryl Plaxico for local litigation.

The board sought representation after most of its members defied the legal advice of Oklahoma’s attorney general not to approve the charter school’s application in June. Lawsuits against the board on a local and national scale are anticipated.

During Monday’s meeting, Board Chairman Robert Franklin called for a subcommittee to review the applications for legal counsel before making a decision. After being pushed by other board members, Franklin sided with the board to hire his recommended attorney, Daniel Carsey of Hall Estill firm, as their general counsel for the St. Isidore case.

But Franklin was the lone “nay” vote on the decision to hire ADF and Plaxico. He later told The Tulsa World the vote was unnecessarily rushed, calling it “premature” and “unwise.” He added the Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, who is the driving force behind St. Isidore, needs another month to prepare.

The motion to hire ADF and Plaxico came from board member Nellie Sanders, who said she “really felt strongly” about and was “so excited” for her two legal counsel picks.

Franklin also points out the previous vote to approve St. Isidore’s application, which he also voted against, may not have been legitimate. As he cautioned before that vote and before Monday’s vote, brand-new board appointee Brian Bobek wasn’t eligible to vote at that time, according to the Attorney General’s Office. Without Bobek’s vote, the motion wouldn’t have passed.

“Even the time limits of your vote were so prompt that it caused us to have concerns about whether that vote was valid or not,” Franklin said to Bobek during Monday’s meeting. “Using time to our advantage is not necessarily a bad thing. It [gives] the opportunity to perhaps allow us to make a little better decision. And again, because we’re not pressed by a contract today, and perhaps we could use that extra month to make a better decision.”

Though the board voted to hire ADF, the group still has to submit an application to the state Attorney General’s Office.

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Beth Wallis is StateImpact Oklahoma's education reporter.
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