According to its website, the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma is “the official voice of the Catholic Church in Oklahoma on matters of public policy.” Founded five years ago to lobby state officials on issues of interest to the church, the organization is run by Brett Farley, an experienced political operative with extensive Republican Party ties.
“The shorthand of my job is that I’m a lobbyist for the bishops,” Farley said in an interview. “So I carry forward their thoughts, their commitments, their values as they shepherd the church.”
According to Farley, the organization is guided solely by Catholic doctrine and, if you boil it down, the Great Commission, in which Christ told his followers to “make disciples of all nations.”
“If the goal is to make disciples of all nations, we have to also consider the things that each individual is dealing with in their life here on Earth,” Farley said. “Do they have education? Do they have health care? All of these things, because if they answer those questions ‘No,’ then those are impediments that get in the way of them considering eternal things.”
For many issues, however, the specific policies to achieve these goals are not spelled out, and, nationally, Catholics are almost evenly split between the Republican and Democratic parties.
During Farley’s tenure, the Catholic Conference and the Catholic Church in Oklahoma have sometimes taken positions commonly opposed by Republicans — Farley notes opposition to the death penalty and support for immigrants as examples. However, they have also been outspoken in favor of policies such as expanding private school vouchers and giving the governor more power over judicial nominations — issues that are less immediately tied to church teachings and are priorities for certain elements of the Oklahoma Republican Party.
At the State Capitol, Farley also serves the more conventional role of a lobbyist and advocates for the financial interests of the church as an institution. For instance, the Catholic Conference has been one of the key players in quashing efforts to eliminate the civil statute of limitations for child sexual abuse.
There are plenty of faith-based organizations active in Oklahoma politics, but the Catholic Conference is the state’s only lobbying organization that officially represents a major religion. As such, it plays an unofficial role at the State Capitol as a de-facto voice for people of faith in general.
‘2,000 years of principles’
The two highest Catholic authorities in the state founded the Catholic Conference in August 2017: Archbishop Paul Coakley, of Oklahoma City, and Bishop David Konderla, of Tulsa.
According to Farley, he was the only person the bishops interviewed for his current position. His previous job had been as the communications director for the Oklahoma Republican Party and, before that, he worked for a number of conservative organizations and Republican campaigns in Oklahoma and nationally.
On the side, he continues to run a political consulting business, Veritas Strategies, which recently cropped up in Oklahoma County news because questions about payments made to Farley by county commissioner and DA candidate Kevin Calvey are at the center of an ongoing investigation by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, which Calvey preemptively revealed at an August press conference.
Calvey said Farley was contracted to do work as a public information officer for Calvey’s county office and separately for his campaign. (Farley’s contracts with Calvey’s county commissioner office have paid him $3,000 per month since 2020.)
“I’ve known him for years,” Calvey said.
On his personal website, Farley describes himself as a “Serial Entrepreneur. Armchair Cathologian. Purveyor of Conservative Ideation.”
In fact, Farley’s connections to Republican politics go back further than his ties to Catholicism. He was raised Baptist and converted in 2011, partly, he said, because he was attracted to the church’s long history.
In a way, that history plays into his work at the Capitol.
“The Catholic Church has 2,000 years of principles that have developed, and so the church thinks quite a bit about a lot of things,” he said. “We have an opinion on everything. So the challenge for me, of course, is trying to prioritize, you know, what are we going to work on? Because we can literally work on everything. We could do something on every one of the 3,000 bills that come down.”
Church and state
The Catholic Church’s participation in Oklahoma politics has evolved following the arrival of Bishops Coakley and Konderla, who came to Oklahoma in 2011 and 2016, respectively.
In recent years, both withdrew from the Oklahoma Conference of Churches, a multi-denomination organization that has existed since 1972. Coakley’s exit came in 2018, shortly after the group named a new director, Shannon Fleck, a minister who describes herself in her Twitter bio as “progressive,” “feminist,” and “anti-racist.” In his resignation letter, Coakley said the group “has moved from what I would describe as ecumenism and Christian witness to secular politics.” Konderla left in 2020 after a statement the group released denouncing racism and discrimination did not mention abortion or the unborn.
Earlier this year, the bishops wrote a joint op-ed in The Oklahoman advocating for the state to change the way judges are appointed in order to allow Gov. Kevin Stitt to bring more pro-life judges to the bench.
Not all local Catholics have been supportive of the bishops’ statements.
Robert Anthony, a lifelong Catholic and Democrat in Norman, wrote a response to the column in which he argued that changing the judicial nomination process was not inherently pro-life and would accomplish “a major goal of the Republican Party in Oklahoma, which is to inject partisan politics into our judicial system.”
Anthony, an attorney who formerly worked as general counsel for the Oklahoma State Regents of Higher Education, told NonDoc he has been disturbed by some of the work of the Catholic Conference. For one thing, does not share the organization’s views on public funding for private school tuition, among other issues. He said he was also surprised to find that the Catholic Conference website frequently linked to conservative news outlets such as the Washington Examiner, the Daily Caller and the Daily Wire. The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank, is another frequent source.
As an example, Anthony pointed to a blog post that reposted an OCPA article with the headline “Oklahoma Department of Education Touts CRT,” though the article goes on to clarify that “while those materials are not explicitly labeled as CRT, they do contain standard CRT jargon and embrace many CRT concepts.” (CRT refers to critical race theory, a university-level academic perspective that has become a political boogeyman in local and national education conversations.)
“It then kind of launches off into what I think is a highly partisan point of view,” Anthony said.
He said he found the article’s description of both critical race theory and the materials to be inaccurate and inflammatory.
“That’s not telling the truth,” he said, pointing out that truthfulness is an explicit part of Catholic teachings.
Anthony said his faith occasionally puts him out of step with the Democratic Party — for instance he agrees with Catholic teaching on abortion, though he adds, “I don’t think it’s the only position the church needs to have on any social issue” — but the two affiliations have coexisted in his life for many years.
In his view, the church’s political moves in Oklahoma recently have marked a fairly significant shift into Republican partisan politics.
Asked what he would say to a Catholic Democrat who found the Conference’s positions too Republican, Farley responded, “I would say it’s funny because I get criticized by folks on the right for being too left. We get criticism on both sides because everybody wants us to be their kind of organization.”
School choice and statutes of limitation
The particular policies Farley has chosen to focus on as the head of the Catholic Conference include the ones you might expect, such as favoring abortion restrictions and opposing the death penalty, and less obvious ones such as support for the earned income tax credit’s refundability and payday-loan reform.
School choice, which the Catholic Conference supports, is one of the most frequently addressed topics on the organization’s website.
Farley said this stance is based on the church’s support of policies that promote “human flourishing,” because “we recognize that the more options there are, the more competition there’s going to be, which is a rising tide that raises all boats.”
The church also has a particular interest in school choice policies: The number of Catholic schools in the United States has been falling for many years, and, in some communities, voucher programs have been key to preventing closures.
On Jan. 20, in a talk at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Oklahoma City, Farley explained that school choice is also the church’s answer to ensuring that students learn “correct philosophy” in school.
“What the Catholic Church is doing is essentially trying to expand Catholic schools,” he said, adding that, earlier that very day, a bill had been filed that “if and when it passes, it’s going to blow the doors off of Oklahoma in terms of opening up options for parents.”
The bill was apparently Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat’s SB 1647, which framed private school vouchers as “’empowerment accounts.” Gov. Kevin Stitt touted the bill a couple of weeks later in his State of the State address, and it became one of the most divisive issues of the legislative session. From the start, SB 1647 faced outspoken criticism from House Republicans, particularly those from rural districts, and ultimately never made it out of the Senate, despite Treat (R-OKC) leading the body.
Also of interest to the Catholic Conference was a 2021 bill that proposed eliminating the statute of limitations for civil actions related to child sexual abuse.
Bush had introduced similar legislation for several years and also wrote a 2017 bill that lifted the civil statute of limitations for child sexual abuse from two years to any time before the victim’s 45th birthday. She credits the passage of that bill largely to timing — it was the same year then-Sen. Ralph Shortey was caught in a hotel room with a teenager — and she saw it as just a first step toward eliminating the statute of limitations entirely. According to Child USA, a think tank focused on child welfare, the average age at which survivors report abuse is 52.
Bush said the Catholic Church, Baptist institutions and the Boy Scouts of America — all of which have faced abuse scandals in recent years — were the primary institutions opposing the change. (In 2001, the OKC Archdiocese was part of a $5 million settlement in a suit alleging that a priest was allowed to remain at a parish in Duncan in the 1990s even though the OKC archdiocese knew about his history of sexual abuse.)
“I know that they probably got to some of our members (of the Legislature) who are Catholic, right? So I think it was pretty strong,” she said. “I mean, I did go to our floor leader and said, ‘Hey, look, if I do this, would you please put it on the floor if I get the number of votes again and I get commitment from the Senate?’ He says, ‘Carol, you know the Baptists and Catholics are going to just crush you?’ I’m like, ‘Uh, I don’t care, I’m Presbyterian.'”
The 2021 bill ultimately passed the House by a large majority but then, like the version before it, failed to get a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sen. Julie Daniels (R-Bartlesville) served as chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee when Bush was running the various iterations of the bill. Daniels said her decision not to hear the legislation was based not on lobbying by the Catholic Conference or other groups but on her view that the bill was too broad.
Daniels supported and even signed on as a Senate co-author of the 2017 bill raising the reporting age to 45, which she called “very generous.”
“For me, that was a huge change, because we have to remember that statutes of limitation were put in place to protect those who are accused and make sure that they can still gather evidence and witnesses and mount a defense,” she said.
Similar bills proposed in other states have also faced opposition from insurance companies, chambers of commerce and groups such as the American Tort Reform Association, which seeks to limit corporate liability.
Nevertheless, Bush said she had been hopeful about the 2021 bill largely because, unlike in previous years, the Catholic Conference came to the table to try to hammer out a version that the church would support.
And at the beginning of the 2022 session, there was a brief window of time when Sen. Brent Howard (R-Altus) replaced Daniels at the head of the Judiciary Committee, during which Bush thought there might be a chance to get the bill out of committee. But Bush said the group of survivors she was working with would not agree to most of the changes proposed by the Catholic Conference, which included a $50,000 cap on damages, immunity for schools and penalties for fraudulent suits.
“If [Howard] had remained and we could have got to some sort of consensus even on one of the items the Catholics wanted, we could have probably got it done,” Bush said.
Farley said the church’s opposition to the bill shouldn’t be taken as disregard for abuse survivors but that the financial effects of a bill like HB 1002 could be devastating.
“All of the potential liabilities in terms of judgments and things like that, could, depending on how the legislation’s written, could bankrupt that entire faith community because of the alleged actions of one individual,” he said.
Michael Scaperlanda, the chancellor of the Oklahoma City archdiocese, who provides legal advice to the OKC Archdiocese, emphasized the need for statutes of limitations and said the church hopes to address victims’ needs without court proceedings.
“That’s why we generally have a statute of limitations in almost everything, because as claims age, the ability to determine the truth fades,” he said. “Sexual abuse is a horrible crime and a horrible thing to the individuals who are victimized by it. And one of the things we do is, without any proof at all, if somebody makes an allegation about a long-dead priest, we’ll offer counseling services and pay for counseling of the alleger’s choice. And, again, without any proof that their claim is credible or substantiated, we’ll offer counseling, just as a pastoral thing.”
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‘We punch above our weight’
Before the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma was founded, Oklahoma was one of only a handful of states without such an organization. At the time, Farley said, nobody was “filling the space in terms of faith advocacy at the Capitol.”
Now, the Catholic Church is one of only two religious faiths with a registered lobbyist at the Oklahoma Legislature — the other being the Church of Christian Science. Despite the deep divide in party affiliation among Catholics, Farley described the church as “pretty monolithic” on matters of policy.
Farley also noted that the Catholic Church has an unusual place in culture and is often treated as a stand-in for faith communities writ large.
“I would say we punch above our weight,” he said of the Conference’s influence. “Even in a red evangelical state like Oklahoma, when public leaders look to someone to sort of be the face of the faith community, historically speaking, it’s been the Catholic Church.”
Farley said he takes this responsibility to the larger faith community seriously.
“I have to be very careful about what I say and how I say it, because I’m not representing me. I’m representing my bishops, first and foremost, and the church in general,” he said. “And so it’s a solemn responsibility, but we have to be aggressive at the same time, and that’s not an easy responsibility.
(Correction: This story was updated at 3:50 pm on Monday, Sept. 26, 2022, to correct Robert Anthony’s former job title.)