catholic school legal counsel, Alliance Defending Freedom
Statewide Virtual Charter School Board Chairman Robert Franklin, right, speaks to board members during a meeting on Monday, July 24, 2023. (Bennett Brinkman)

Members of the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board voted Monday to retain new legal counsel — including a controversial national organization — for contract negotiations and anticipated litigation related to their recent decision to authorize a Catholic virtual charter school, which could become the first religiously affiliated public school in the United States.

Against the wishes of board chairman Robert Franklin, members Scott Strawn, Nellie Tayloe Sanders and Brian Bobek voted to hire Daniel Carsey of the Hall Estill law firm to represent the board for contract negotiations with the new St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School. Additionally, those same three members voted to hire the Alliance Defending Freedom and Cheryl Plaxico to represent the board and its individual members in national matters and potential litigation regarding the school, which some argue poses an illegal use of public dollars for a private religious purpose. Board member William Pearson was absent from Monday’s meeting.

The votes came after Franklin made a motion but failed to obtain a second to form an ad hoc committee, which he said would present questions to the list of potential legal counsels and then identify three options from which the board would choose at a later meeting.

“(I’m) a little disappointed that we went as quickly as we did, because I thought we could have perhaps taken another month to do a little more diligence — do a little more analysis,” Franklin said after the meeting.

In an odd twist, after his motion failed, Franklin actually voted with the other board members to hire Carsey. Franklin said the board’s choice of Carsey was also his recommendation, but he admitted that his vote was “awkward” given his previous failed motion.

“That (motion) aligns with my recommendation but puts me in a weird predicament,” Franklin said prior to the vote.

SPLC calls Alliance Defending Freedom a ‘hate group’

After hiring Carsey, the board also voted to hire the Alliance Defending Freedom, a national law firm focused on defending and advancing Christian positions, and Cheryl Plaxico “as national and board litigation, respectively, to represent the board and its members related to actions pertaining to St. Isidore,” according to Sanders’ motion. Franklin was the only no vote.

After the meeting, Sanders declined to discuss the matter, saying she did not feel comfortable talking about legal issues without having representation with her.

But Franklin shared his thoughts on the board’s hiring of ADF.

“I’m not really sure that we made the best decision there because I don’t know that firm. Again, (I) haven’t done my diligence and research on that firm,” Franklin said. “And quite frankly, when you read their esteemed accomplishments and the like — I’m not looking for an advocate, I’m looking for someone to help represent the board.”

On its website, the Alliance Defending Freedom calls itself “one of the leading Christian law firms committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, marriage and family, parental rights, and the sanctity of life.”

“ADF is one of the nation’s most respected and successful United States Supreme Court advocates,” the website states. “We have played various roles in 74 Supreme Court victories. Since 2011, ADF has represented parties in 15 victories at the Supreme Court. These victories have been on behalf of pastors, churches, religious organizations, college students, family-owned businesses, pro-life pregnancy centers, and many others.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center, meanwhile, has designated the Alliance Defending Freedom as a hate group, saying the organization also “works to develop ‘religious liberty’ legislation and case law that will allow the denial of goods and services to LGBTQ people on the basis of religion.”

In a letter sent to NonDoc after the publication of this article, Jeremy Tedesco, ADF’s senior counsel and senior vice president of corporate engagement said that he denies the “hate group” designation and provided the following statement, which included the hyperlinked articles:

“The Southern Poverty Law Center is a thoroughly discredited, blatantly partisan activist outfit known for sexism, racism, and condoning domestic terrorism. No one should be listening to the SPLC. It is preposterous to now see the SPLC target moms and dads who simply want to have a voice at school board meetings. The truth is, Alliance Defending Freedom is among the largest and most effective legal advocacy organizations dedicated to protecting the religious freedom and free speech rights of all Americans. Our record includes 15 Supreme Court victories since 2011 and over 400 victories protecting the free speech rights of students on college campuses.”

Strawn praised the ADF during the meeting, calling the organization the “gold standard” and saying he had worked with them before.

While it is not yet clear what work the ADF will do if it agrees to take the board and its members on as clients, the vote reflects board members’ anticipation of legal action regarding their approval of the St. Isidore, which would become a religious charter school receiving public money once it opens.

That vote to approve St. Isidore in May drew national attention owing to First Amendment questions regarding religious schools and public money. Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond has called the decision “unconstitutional,” and board members have speculated that Drummond himself may file litigation against them. An attorney from the Attorney General’s Office typically represents the SVCSB, and board members said at a prior meeting the potential for Drummond to file a lawsuit spurred their decision to hire outside counsel.

Franklin said he expects legal action once a contract is signed between the board and St. Isidore outlining the exact nature of the SVCSB’s authorization of the school.

“We haven’t been served with anything yet,” Franklin said. “I think the contract is kind of this tipping point. If I’m looking for a domino to fall, I think that’s the first one that’s falling.”

Beyond the legal counsel matter, board members also approved updates to the Virtual Charter School Authorization and Oversight Process Manual to reflect the passage of SB 516, which will dissolve the board next year and replace it with a new Statewide Charter School Board.

(Update: The headline of this article was updated at 8:20 p.m. Monday, July 24, to provide more context. This article was updated again at 11:35 a.m. Monday, Aug. 7, to include comments from Alliance Defending Freedom sent in a letter to NonDoc after publication.)