Next up for Leonard Leo: Making your kid’s public school Christian

If Catholic fundamentalist and dark-money operative Leonard Leo has his way, the conservative Supreme Court he engineered will soon overturn 150 years of precedent and finish demolishing the First Amendment’s wall between church and state. Politico’s Heidi Przybyla continues her stellar reporting on Leo and his deep reach in the conservative legal movement with this story about the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma’s legal efforts to create the St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School and make taxpayers fund the religious school.

Leo is the founder and former director of the Federalist Society and, thanks to multimillion-dollar campaigns in support of the right-leaning nominees he hand-selects, the architect of the current conservative majority on the Supreme Court. He has also been responsible for reshaping select federal district and appeals courts since the George W. Bush administration. Leonard is at the center of a vast dark-money web that he’s put to work reshaping American society, with the help of his friends on the Supreme Court.

The legal team backing the St. Isidore scheme, Przybyla reports, is the Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal advocacy and training group focused on “religious liberty” protections, fighting LGBTQ+ equality, and dismantling abortion rights. It is considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The ADF has been adept at manufacturing bogus plaintiffs to bring challenges before the courts.

The group has had great success since Leo helped secure the conservative majority on the court just days before the election in 2020, when Donald Trump’s nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, was rushed into the seat created by the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Barrett’s seat is key here, because another force behind St. Isidore’s legal push is the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Initiative. Barrett was a law professor at Notre Dame, where she met and became close friends with fellow professor Nicole Stelle Garnett, who according to Przybyla, “has been the effort’s biggest champion within Notre Dame and working with St. Isidore from the start.”

Another note about the Religious Liberty Initiative: That’s the group that sponsored Justice Samuel Alito’s victory tour last year following the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling, which ended federal abortion rights protections. The organization paid for Alito’s trip to Rome where he was feted “at a gala hosted at a palace in the heart of the city,” according to CNN.

Brett Farley, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma, makes no bones about this effort’s goal and is hopeful that the current court will overturn 150 years’ worth of Supreme Court precedent. Farley shamelessly claims that precedent is based on a misunderstanding of Thomas Jefferson’s and the founders’ intent when they crafted the establishment clause in the Constitution’s First Amendment and built a “wall of separation between the church and state.”

“Jefferson didn’t mean that the government shouldn’t be giving public benefits to religious communities toward a common goal,” he said. “The court rightly over the last decade or so has been saying, ‘No, look, we’ve got this wrong and we’re gonna right the ship here.’”

He has good reason to believe that. The Leo-crafted court breached that wall twice in 2022, deciding 6-3 in Carson v. Makin that the state of Maine could not prevent public money from going to private religious schools in school districts that do not operate a secondary school. That was followed by Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, in which the same 6-3 court ruled that a football coach could lead public prayers on school grounds and after games.

That decision, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a blistering dissent, “elevates one individual’s interest in personal religious exercise, in the exact time and place of that individual’s choosing, over society’s interest in protecting the separation between church and state, eroding the protections for religious liberty for all.”

“In doing so, the Court sets us further down a perilous path in forcing States to entangle themselves with religion, with all of our rights hanging in the balance,” she wrote. “As much as the Court protests otherwise, today’s decision is no victory for religious liberty.”

If this case ends up in the conservative-dominated Supreme Court’s hands, the end of that “perilous path” could very well be in Oklahoma.


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