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State Superintendent supports recommendations for religion in schools

State Superintendent Ryan Walters has proposed enforcing a state law that requires Oklahoma schools to begin each class day with a minute of silence for prayer.

State Superintendent Ryan Walters has proposed enforcing a state law that requires Oklahoma schools to begin each class day with a minute of silence for prayer.


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Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider - taking you inside politics, policy and government in Oklahoma. I'm Dick Pryor with Quorum Call publisher Shawn Ashley. The hottest story of the week happened on Thursday before an overflow crowd at the State Board of Education meeting. State Superintendent Ryan Walters set the tone with a statement attacking the U.S. Supreme Court over decisions relating to separation of church and state and religion in the classroom and offering a recommendation that schools in Oklahoma begin each class day with a minute of silence, ostensibly for prayer. Shawn, is that idea something new?

Shawn Ashley: No, it's really not. A 2002 state law requires schools to observe approximately one minute of silence each day for the purpose of allowing the students in the exercise of their individual choice to reflect, meditate, pray, or engage in any other silent activity that does not interfere with, distract, or impede other students in the exercise of their individual choices. What is different are the proposed instructions that would proceed the one minute of silence, which would emphasize that students are permitted to pray during that time.

Dick Pryor: Did the board take any action on Walters’ recommendation?

Shawn Ashley: No, it did not. Walters’ statement and recommendation came during his monthly report to the board, and it was not an action item on Thursday's agenda.

Dick Pryor: Walters also showed support for two other recommendations from a citizens group that wants to see religion in public schools. One of those recommendations is to require posting of the Ten Commandments in each school. That's something that likely would invite legal challenges.

Shawn Ashley: It could, but a 2018 state law says the Ten Commandments are a historically significant document likening them to the U.S. and Oklahoma Constitutions, the Bill of Rights, the Magna Carta, and the Mayflower Compact. It also suggests those documents should be displayed proudly and resolutely in public buildings and on public grounds. The law permits, but does not require, government entities including public schools, to display replicas of those documents in their buildings. So, in some respects, it's currently permitted.

Dick Pryor: Yes, permissive, but not mandatory. Another interesting story that arose in the last week was about gubernatorial succession. Who becomes governor when the governor leaves the state? Now we've both seen how this works up close, and it's not as simple as people might think.

Shawn Ashley: It's really not. The Oklahoma Constitution and state statutes spell out the line of succession from the governor to the lieutenant governor to the senate president pro tem and then to the House speaker. But what the Constitution and the statutes don't do is establish a process for communication between the officials about when they are going to be out of the state and the power switches from one to the other. Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat is behind Lieutenant Governor Matt Pinnell in the line of succession, and he did not know Pinnell had left the state Monday afternoon for a conference in Georgia while Governor Kevin Stitt was in Paris for the airshow there. Treat said no one had told him he was in charge. Attorney General Gentner Drummond suggested, and Treat agreed, that language needs to be added to state statutes to establish an effective means of communicating who's in charge.

Dick Pryor: Finally, the Oklahoma Veterans Commission voted to close the Talihina Veterans Center, effective immediately. Arguably, Oklahoma needs more veterans facilities, not fewer. So why are they doing this now?

Shawn Ashley: The department is building a new facility in Sallisaw, but due to construction delays, it will not open for another 18 months. In the meantime, the Talihina facility loses about one half million dollars a month. So, the department had a choice. They could close the Talihina facility and allow its 36 residents to move to some of its other facilities or private facilities or leave it open and hope the legislature would give them the money to continue to operate it until the Sallisaw facility is online. They decided to close the Talihina facility.

Dick Pryor: And in the meantime, where those veterans go is an issue.

Shawn Ashley: That's right. They're hopeful that some of those will remain within the Department of Veterans Affairs system and at other facilities, but some likely will go to private facilities.

Dick Pryor: Thank you, Shawn.

Shawn Ashley: You're very welcome.

Dick Pryor: And that's Capitol Insider. For more information, go to quorumcall.online. You can find audio and transcripts at kgou.org and listen to Capitol Insider where you get your podcasts. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.

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Dick Pryor