Voters would be asked to decide whether to remove a section of Oklahoma's constitution that prohibits state money from being used for any church or religious teacher.
Rep. Jason Nelson asked a House of Representatives committee Wednesday to approve sending the question to voters as a way to allow continued state payments to religious-based organizations if two school districts win their lawsuit challenging a state scholarship program.
The proposal calls for voters to consider removing Article 2, Section 5 of the state constitution. That section is also known as the Blaine Amendment because of the efforts of supporters of James Blaine who in the 1870s worked to get states to adopt wording in their constitutions to forbid direct government aid to educational institutions that have any religious affiliation.
The Rules Committee passed House Joint Resolution 1087 by 11-1. It now goes to the full House.
Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, is the author of legislation passed two years ago that established the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities. It allows the parents of children with disabilities to transfer them to a school of their choice and receive a portion of the per-student state funding that would have gone to the public school the student originally attended.
Nelson said if the state scholarship program is ruled constitutional or the school districts drop their lawsuit, he would not pursue getting his measure on the ballot. To get it on the November ballot, lawmakers would have to approve the measure before they adjourn in late May.
The Jenks and Union school districts filed a suit in district court in September, challenging the constitutionality of the scholarships. They sued the parents of the children who are in the program.
Nelson said the lawsuit could go beyond the issue of public money going to pay private schools.
It could affect Medicaid payments, preschool students attending private religious schools and foster care money going to private religious institutions, Nelson said.
“We spend billions of dollars on those things every year,” he said. “For some reason we have this mysterious carve-out for common education.”
Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, said removing Article 2, Section 5 would harm religious freedom in the state. Its elimination could mean the state would have no barrier against providing money to support certain religions.
“As a state we hold this value of separation of church and state very seriously — so much so that we want to reiterate that in our own constitution,” he said. “The Legislature shouldn't be so quick to amend the constitution. They should recognize that the constitution and the rights that it affords the people of Oklahoma aren't just another law or a statute that's passed in any given legislative session. They are part of the governing document that sets forth the long-term vision for our state.”