Sara Hill nomination
Attorney General Gentner Drummond filed a challenge to the newly approved St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School on Friday, Oct. 20, 2023. (Provided)

When news nuggets rain, sometimes they pour. This week started off with a post detailing a slate of recent developments, and now it concludes with another roundup of Friday developments.

Below, learn about a new lawsuit filed to stop a state-sponsored religious charter school, two new appointees to the Oklahoma State Board of Education, and competing perspectives about President Joe Biden’s nomination of a former Cherokee Nation attorney general for a federal judicial position.

Stitt appoints new State Board of Education members

Gov. Kevin Stitt appointed Alex Gray, left, and Zach Archer, right, to serve on the Oklahoma State Board of Education on Friday, Oct. 20, 2023. (Provided)

On Friday afternoon, Gov. Kevin Stitt appointed two new members to the Oklahoma State Board of Education. One seat has been vacant since May, when Trent Smith resigned after serving more than two years on the board.

Stitt appointed foreign policy consultant Alex Gray to fill the seat vacated by Smith, which represents the 5th Congressional District. According to Stitt’s press release announcing his appointment, Gray was the chief of staff of the White House National Security Council under former President Donald Trump.

“It’s an honor to be appointed to the Oklahoma State Board of Education,” Gray said in the release. “I believe the future of our country is in Oklahoma classrooms, and I’m eager to work with my fellow board members to ensure that every Oklahoma student has the opportunity to live their American dream.”

Currently, Gray is the managing partner at American Global Strategies, an international consulting and strategy advisory firm that he co-founded. Gray is also a senior fellow in national security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council and a senior advisor at The Marathon Initiative.

According to the American Global Strategies website, Gray previously served as the special assistant to the president for the defense industrial base at the National Economic Council and was the principal executive officer of the president, making him responsible for matters impacting the defense and manufacturing industrial base. While at the NSC, Gray served as the first-ever director for Oceania and Indo-Pacific Security.

Gray also ran for former U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe’s seat in the 2022 election, but he lost in the Republican primary with less than 1 percent of votes.

Stitt appointed Zach Archer to replace Suzanne Reynolds as the at-large board member. Reynolds resigned Oct. 11.

Archer is a financial advisor and investor. He was serving as the vice president of the Hammon Public Schools Board of Education prior to his new appointment, and he is the managing director of Great Plains Investment Services.

“I am honored to have Gov. Stitt’s trust to serve on the Oklahoma State Board of Education,” Archer said in the release. “As a parent and a current local school board member, I take this appointment very seriously and look forward to working on behalf of all Oklahoman students.”

Drummond sues over Catholic virtual charter school

catholic charter school
With a sign urging Statewide Virtual Charter School Board members to vote against a proposed Catholic virtual charter school, board Chairman Robert Franklin converses with executive director Rebecca Wilkinson before a meeting Monday, June 5, 2023. (Bennett Brinkman)

Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond filed litigation Friday attempting to block the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board’s decision to authorize a new Catholic virtual charter school. In a nine-page application and 35-page brief, Drummond asked the Oklahoma Supreme Court to assume original jurisdiction and declare the religious charter school to be unconstitutional.

SVCSB members voted to authorize St. Isidore of Seville Virtual Catholic School on June 5 and approved its charter contract Oct. 9. School proponents have said it could open and begin teaching students for the 2024-2025 school year, but Drummond’s lawsuit will likely need to be adjudicated first.

“The board members who approved this contract have violated the religious liberty of every Oklahoman by forcing us to fund the teachings of a specific religious sect with our tax dollars,” Drummond said in a press release announcing the lawsuit. “Today, Oklahomans are being compelled to fund Catholicism. Because of the legal precedent created by the board’s actions, tomorrow we may be forced to fund radical Muslim teachings like Sharia law. In fact, Gov. Stitt has already indicated that he would welcome a Muslim charter school funded by our tax dollars. That is a gross violation of our religious liberty. As the defender of Oklahoma’s religious freedoms, I am prepared to litigate this issue to the United States Supreme Court if that’s what is required to protect our constitutional rights.”

Drummond’s filing marks the second lawsuit challenging the new religious charter school, which could be the first in the nation if it opens.

In July, 10 plaintiffs in Oklahoma sued to block the school with the help of a number of lawyers from national organizations, including Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union, Education Law Center and Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Those plaintiffs celebrated Drummond’s decision to file his challenge Friday.

“We applaud Attorney General Drummond for his efforts to protect church-state separation and public education in Oklahoma. The law is clear: Charter schools are public schools that must be secular and serve all students,” the 10 plaintiffs in the other case said in a statement. “St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School plans to discriminate against students, families, and staff and indoctrinate students into one religion. Allowing a religious public charter school like St. Isidore to operate would be a sea change for our democracy.”

The SVCSB, for its part, hired the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian law firm one week prior to the first lawsuit being filed. The board had been represented by the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office but switched to different counsel after the AG’s lawyers advised against authorizing St. Isidore.

“Oklahomans know all too well that our public schools face a slew of serious challenges,” Drummond said in his press release. “Given that reality, it is unconscionable that we would jeopardize desperately needed education dollars for the sake of a blatantly misguided endeavor.”

In his own statement, Gov. Kevin Stitt denounced Drummond’s challenge while calling St. Isidore’s authorization a “win” for Oklahoma students.

“This lawsuit is a political stunt and runs counter to our Oklahoma values and the law. AG Drummond seems to lack any firm grasp on the constitutional principle of religious freedom and masks his disdain for the Catholics’ pursuit by obsessing over non-existent schools that don’t neatly align with his religious preference,” Stitt said. “His discriminatory and ignorant comment concerning a potential Muslim charter is a perfect illustration,” Stitt said. “The creation of St. Isadore’s (sic) is a win for religious and education freedom in Oklahoma. We want parents to be able to choose the education that is best for their kids, regardless of income. The state shouldn’t stand in the way.”

Through a spokesperson, the board of the new St. Isidore school called Drummond’s lawsuit an example of religious discrimination.

“Attorney General Drummond’s lawsuit employs the language of fear and discrimination, twists the law of religious liberty beyond recognition, and ignores the very real successes of faith based schools in our country,” said Brett Farley, a registered lobbyist for the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma. “Sadly, he also attempts to pit people of different faiths against each other. Religious freedom for all is a cornerstone of our society.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters also released a statement Friday.

“The Constitution is crystal clear on religious liberty, but that fundamental truth is lost on some people. Oklahomans hold their faith and their liberty sacred, and atheism should not be the state-sponsored religion. We should not play politics with the future of our kids through this misguided lawsuit,” Walters said. “Oklahoma parents know what is best for their kids and deserve the most expansive system of school choice in the country so they can make the right decision for their families. The approval of St. Isidore of Seville is a landmark in the battle for educational and religious freedom, and I am proud that Oklahoma is leading the way. We will never back down.”

Hill could make history on federal bench, Stitt voices ‘serious concerns’

Earlier this week, President Joe Biden announced the nominations of Sara Hill and John Russell to be U.S. District Court judicial nominees for the Northern District of Oklahoma. But while both of Oklahoma’s Republican U.S. senators have said they support Hill and Russell, Stitt released a statement Friday criticizing one of the selections.

President Joe Biden nominated former Cherokee Nation Attorney General Sara Hill to be a federal judge on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. (Provided)

Hill served as attorney general for the Cherokee Nation from 2019 and 2023 and is currently working in private practice. Hill has also held several other tribal government roles, including secretary of natural resource and deputy attorney general. She attended law school at the University of Tulsa and also attended Northeastern State University. If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, she would be the first Indigenous woman to be appointed to the federal bench in Oklahoma.

Russell has been a shareholder at GableGotwals since 2015 and previously worked in private practice. Russell has past federal judicial experience, having served as assistant U.S. attorney in the Northern District from 1991 to 1993. He also worked as a trial attorney from the Department of Justice. He attended law school at the University of Oklahoma and did his undergraduate work at Oklahoma State.

Gov. Kevin Stitt strongly criticized Biden’s choice of Hill for the federal bench in a statement citing concerns related to McGirt v. Oklahoma, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision from 2020 that functionally affirmed the eastern half of Oklahoma as a series of Indian County reservations for the purposes of criminal law. Other legal actions and challenges have attempted to affirm civil law implications as well.

“I have serious concerns about President Biden’s nomination of longtime tribal government Attorney Sarah (sic) Hill to be a federal judge in Oklahoma,” Stitt said in his statement. “Why would President Biden nominate someone to the federal bench who has little, if any, experience as lead counsel in federal litigation? Furthermore, is the best choice an attorney general of a tribal government who has spent a great deal of time and resources actively suing the state of Oklahoma in an effort to overturn 116 years of Statehood and working to strip the state of our authority to enforce laws. We already know where she stands on important questions facing our state as to who has jurisdiction to write speeding tickets and whether members of her tribe should be exempt from paying taxes that fund schools and roads? It raises many questions as to whether this appointment is based on qualification or on a broader political agenda of the Biden administration to turn half our state into several federally-managed reservations.”

In contrast, both Sen. James Lankford and Sen. Markwayne Mullin praised Hill’s nomination as federal judge. Lankford said Hill comes from a state with numerous qualified people.

“I’m pleased that the White House has nominated Oklahomans Sara Hill and John D. Russell to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District, and I congratulate both nominees,” Lankford said in a statement. “Oklahoma is blessed to have many qualified individuals to serve in our courts, but both of these candidates rose to the top after extensive interviews. I have personally met with both of them and heard their commitment to the Constitution and strict rule of law. I look forward to the Senate Judiciary Committee advancing the nominations and the full Senate confirming them soon so they are able to fill two vacancies in the very overburdened Northern District Court.”

Mullin praised Hill’s work for the Cherokee Nation.

“I was happy to hear of the nomination of two solid candidates for these vacancies in the Northern District,” Mullin wrote in a statement. “As a fellow member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, I am grateful for Sara Hill’s service to the Tribe, which totals approximately 19 years in the aggregate. Ms. Hill is very familiar with the Northern District of Oklahoma, having previously served as a Special Assistant US Attorney. John D. Russell has a strong history in public service as well. Like Ms. Hill, he is familiar with the Northern District, having previously served as an assistant U.S. attorney, as well as a trial attorney at the Department of Justice’s Tax Division. I anticipate a smooth and swift consideration of both candidates by the Senate Judiciary Committee, and their ultimate confirmation by the full Senate.”

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. praised Hill’s nomination Wednesday and issued another statement after being apprised of Stitt’s criticism.

“The Cherokee Nation could not be more proud of former Cherokee Nation Attorney General Sara Hill who will make an excellent federal judge,” Hoskin said. “Deputy Chief (Bryan Warner) and I are so pleased that President Biden announced that she is among his nominees and call for her prompt confirmation by the U.S. Senate. She is a brilliant attorney and dedicated public servant who possesses the knowledge, demeanor, and compassion to serve the country well on the bench. As a female and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, she not only adds diversity to the ranks of federal judges, she also brings knowledge of Indian Country issues that we need more of among federal judges.

“Sara Hill will bring to the Northern District the same high level of legal expertise, work ethic and sense of fairness that she brought to her job as Cherokee Nation’s attorney general during four of the most challenging years in our tribal history.”