OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) — State Superintendent Ryan Walters has reached out to educators around the state twice this week about religion in the classroom.
The first email was sent on Wednesday. The subject line was “A Moment of Silence and Prayer for Israel.”
Supt. Walters provided a sample prayer stating, “Let us offer a prayer for safety and peace for the people of Israel. We pray that violence against the Jewish nation should stop and that a time of healing occurs for those lost. We pray for our leaders to stand strong and defend any attacks against the Israeli people.”
A metro Assistant Principal posted to social media about the sample prayer. He asked KFOR to conceal his identity for fear of retaliation.
He wrote, “How dare [Ryan Walters] indoctrinate me and tell me what I need to pray. He throws a fit at educators indoctrinating kids, but turns around and does what he spews about. Not sure I’ve ever disliked a politician more than him. What a cancer to our public education system.”
News 4 spoke with another educator who has been in the classroom for 20+ years. She, too, asked KFOR to conceal her identity for fear of retaliation.
“Teachers just want to teach. They don’t want to pay any attention to the political aspects of what’s going on. It’s very frustrating. It’s a little stressful. This whole religious stuff is just about to drive me insane,” she said.
She told KFOR if one religion is going to be pushed in the classroom, then all religions should be allowed, but questions how educators are supposed to lead prayers when it’s not something they needed to earn their education.
“How can teachers do that? I don’t know enough about Islam to lead anything in my classroom. I don’t know enough about Judaism to lead anything in my classroom. If I had not grown up in a Baptist church, I would not know enough about Christianity to lead anything in the classroom. It’s not my responsibility. I’m not an ordained minister in anything and I don’t want to be. I want to teach reading. That’s it. I don’t want to be a religious teacher,” she added.
She said her rural school district has several Christian-based organizations. She said to have school sanctioned religious organizations is acceptable, but to push one religion on students is inappropriate.
“We have kids that are Jehovah Witness. We have kids that are Christian. We have kids that are Catholic, and I’m sure we have some Muslim kids and we have Shaman kids. And how do you fit all that in and still teach math, reading, science and history?,” she asked. “Is [Ryan Walters] going to eventually tell me that I have to use the Bible to teach reading? That’s not out of the realm of possibility.”
She stated for those families who want more of a religious-based education for their students, a private religious school would be their best bet, and not a public school.
“What happens to all the kids who can’t or don’t have access to private school? You know, public school will end up being the place where all the kids who have disabilities or no money go,” she said.
She said if she is ever forced to lead a prayer or teach religion, she would likely leave the classroom.
On top of the sample prayer Supt. Walters provided to school districts, he also sent a memorandum on Thursday referring to a “Wisconsin-based secular organization.”
Supt. Walters said he was notified of a school district in Oklahoma receiving a letter from a “Wisconsin-based radical secular activist organization” demanding the removal of teachers’ personal displays from their classroom walls.
In a press release, Supt. Walters said the letter sent to schools threatens litigation if they continue to practice their Freedom of Religion.
“The targeted displays include a sign displaying the vaguely spiritual text ‘He is still good,’ and a sign with the Bible verse John 3:16,” said Supt. Walters in a memo.
He said the organization is telling school districts to place atheism as the state religion.
“Thankfully, the activists’ arguments are misguided and outdated. These demands rely on the old Lemon test. Radical secular activists have failed to note an important change in the law: the Supreme Court of the United States finally cast away the infamous Lemon test. In Kennedy v. Bremerton Sch. Dist.., the Supreme Court overruled Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971). See 142 S. Ct. 2407, 2427 (2022). Now, when courts interpret the Establishment Clause, they look to ‘historical practices and understandings’ of the practice at issue. Id. at 2428. Cases that rely on Lemon as their foundation, such as the cases relied on in radical secular activist demands, are no longer a valid basis to demand action from schools.
“Schools now face the open question of how to address First Amendment free exercise rights under existing law. Although public employees’ speech receives an ‘interest-balancing test set out in’ Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563 (1968), ‘the Court has never before applied Pickering balancing to a claim brought under the Free Exercise Clause.’ Kennedy, 142 S. Ct. at 2433 (Thomas, J., concurring). In effect, some existing cases on schools rely on an overturned case, while the rules regarding a Free Exercise claim of teacher speech have yet to be determined.
“With these changes in mind, if you receive any letters from similar activist organizations, please forward them to my office for assistance. I do not want to see Oklahoma school districts become complicit in promoting atheism, and I intend to pay close attention to schools that simply surrender to such demands. If you provide a copy of the letter to your regional accreditation officer before responding, they can ensure that the Department is able to review and assist your district in standing their ground against unwarranted demands from radical secular activists.”Part of a memorandum sent from State Superintendent Ryan Walters to educators on Thursday
Although Supt. Walters does not explicitly name the “Wisconsin-based secular organization,” the Freedom From Religion Foundation posted to social media regarding his statements.
“Protecting students from proselytizing teachers is far from an attack on those teachers. It’s a shame an ‘out-of-state’ group cares so much more for Oklahoma’s students than its state superintendent. We’re not backing down,” posted the Freedom From Religion Foundation on Friday.
News 4 has reached out to Supt. Walters’ office several times on Friday for his side of the story, but we have yet to receive a response.
The rural Oklahoma educator News 4 spoke with on Friday said if it’s true the Freedom From Religion Foundation has threatened litigation, she supports it.
“My thoughts are go for it. Do it because no one is standing up to him here. I don’t think religion should be in education. It really bothers me when he implies that atheism is a religion. Being secular is not a religion,” she said. “How did this group in Wisconsin find out that a teacher in Oklahoma had a sign up in her room that says ‘He is still strong?’ How does that happen? Most of the time, I wonder when he says things if he made it up, and that’s because that’s what he wants to talk about or if it’s an actual fact.”
Another Oklahoma educator, Robin Needham told KFOR teachers are losing the battle with Supt. Walters and she worries for what the total loss will look like.
She asked KFOR to not publish the district she works in because she didn’t want to make a statement on behalf of her district, but rather on behalf of all rural schools.
“Our little schools are barely surviving abuse, hunger, addictions, diversity, mental health, and lower socioeconomic conditions! [Ryan Walters] is worried about teachers being attacked about religion? Worry about these kids that are just trying to survive until they make it to school the next day! Our kids need support!,” exclaimed Needham.
She said the prioritizing of religion in the classroom needs to be put on the back burner and funding rural schools needs to be in the front seat.
“Why aren’t we thanking the teachers that have worked so hard for their kids? Our scores are struggling, but how can they not? No one seems to care about rural schools and our kids! We look at those big schools, big towns, and the ones with big money!,” stated Needham.
The anonymous longtime educator News 4 interviewed over the phone said she believes Supt. Walters knows what he’s doing is wrong and is hopeful someone will step in soon.