A Catholic church wanted to open a virtual charter school in Oklahoma—and they wanted that state's taxpayers to pay for it. But one Catholic warned the school board there that the Satanic Temple would be sure to notice this lavish perk—and apply for a similar one for a taxpayer-funded school of their own.

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This past week, an Oklahoma school board rejected a Catholic church’s application for a taxpayer-funded charter school, all because another Catholic warned them that the leaders of the Satanic Temple exist—and that they delight in taking advantage of the exact same funding and laws that Christians do. Therefore, if Oklahoma gave funding to Catholics for a school, they’d be expected to grant that same funding to all and any other religion’s schools.

This story reveals a fascinating new development in the ongoing secularization of America. It also reveals just how absolutely desperate religious groups are to capture the minds of young children, as well as how careful they’ll be moving forward to get free money while denying it to their culture-war enemies.

Situation Report: Impoverished Catholic churches are getting creative

You’d really think that the Catholic Church as a whole would have more than enough money to establish its own religious schools and keep them running. But for years now, the mothership in Europe has demonstrated very little generosity toward its New World churches.

According to Catholic News Agency (CNA), many Catholic dioceses struggle mightily with settling child abuse lawsuits. As a result, as of February 2023, 15 Catholic dioceses in America have already finished bankruptcy proceedings. Another 11 have begun the process.

(Hopefully, none of them are misrepresenting their finances to get bankruptcy protection from those claims. In 2007, San Diego’s diocese got spanked hard when its leaders allegedly tried to do exactly that.)

Also for years, Catholic dioceses have faced serious staffing issues for churches and religious schools alike. Nuns in particular are getting considerably older as a group. Lately, they’re retiring in huge numbers. Catholic churches must provide and care for these elderly women—and they must also plug the free-labor holes those women leave behind when no other nuns are available to fill their roles. Priest shortages, likewise, have been serious for years.

For that matter, Catholic or parochial schools don’t have the sterling reputation they once enjoyed. Enrollment at most of these schools has been dropping for years. Even admitting students from other religions or flavors of Christianity hasn’t helped.

Consequently, churches and schools must make do with fewer staff—or find innovative ways to stay alive—or simply close.

File today’s story under “innovative ways to stay alive.”

A huge wall of separation story out of Oklahoma

This month, Oklahoma became the epicenter of another fight over the wall of separation between church and state.

Taking their cue from recent Supreme Court decisions, the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma applied for state funding to form a virtual Catholic school for children. Brett Farley, the executive director of the group, says the school will eventually “sustain” 1500 K-12 students—on Oklahoma taxpayers’ dime.

The school will cost those taxpayers over $25M over five years. It will also hire only staff who abide by the Catholic Church’s strict code of behavior.

To push his request, Farley offered up the usual religious-extremist apologetics about the wall of separation not being a valid legal concept because it’s not explicitly named as such in the Constitution. (A 10-second Google search proves him completely wrong: Thomas Jefferson used the phrase and said the First Amendment created it.)

In previous years, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt (Republican) and former and brief Attorney General John O’Connor (Republican and apparently incompetent lawyer who drew a lot of criticism last year for advocating for America to become a theocracy) loved the idea.

But Gentner Drummond (R) is the Attorney General for the state now. He doesn’t love it. Contradicting both his governor and previous officeholder, Drummond now thinks, correctly, that taxpayer-funded religious charter schools are simply “a means to justify state-funded religion.” He also thinks, also correctly, that if the Catholic school gains approval then it will be challenged in court. Such a challenge will cost Oklahoma even more money.

None of those fireworks would happen unless the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board (OKSVCSB) approved the application, though. With just five people on the board, only three needed to think that this charter application was a great idea that all Oklahomans needed to fund.

They’re learning: Someone reminds Oklahoma that Satanists exist

During the OKSVCSB meeting on April 11, a concerned citizen offered a potent comment. This citizen, Sean Cummings, identified himself as a Catholic. Since the meeting was recorded and uploaded to YouTube, you can watch his comment for yourself:

YouTube video
This should be timestamped, but if not then Cummings takes the stand at about 1:07:00.

He told them:

If you vote Yes, you are not a victim. You are a volunteer when Lucien Greaves of the satanic temple wants to apply for a religious Charter School. You are not a victim when Christian Court [Chris Korda], a cross-gender vegan that does Church of Euthanasia, and the four principles of theirs is suicide, abortion, cannabis, and sodomy. You are not a victim when that comes next. You are not a victim when Pee-Wee Herman’s church, the Church of Subgenius, who believes in Jehovah One, an extraterrestrial deity, wants to apply. You are not a victim when Rastafarianism wants to apply. And their God is attained through getting high. It’s a church of marijuana. You are not a victim when Santa Maria wants to apply. Now, that is, they use the ancient craft abusing Christian-based sorcery. These are all of the things you open us
up to by crossing the line of non-sectarianism.

Sean Cummings, commenting during the OKSVCSB meeting 4/11/23

He also warned them about the Catholic child sex abuse scandal, saying that this virtual school—which will have some educational components placed in local Catholic churches—gave Oklahoma no “guardrails” in noticing or dealing effectively with such abuse.

But the main part of his comment revolved around Christians’ inability to recognize that they are no longer the only religion in America.

They’re not victims, but volunteers when the wall of separation comes tumbling down in Oklahoma

In effect, Cummings reminded the school board of some very important facts that they had clearly forgotten:

Other religions exist.

Not everyone in Oklahoma likes all of those other religions.

If the Catholic school gets its funding, then people in those other religions will notice.

And they will ask for funding for their schools. They will use exactly the same reasoning that Farley used. They will write the same kinds of applications.

If Oklahoma approves this Catholic school, then they will have to approve these other schools, too.

This is all stuff that Oklahoma’s school board should have recognized immediately. It’s all reasons why they should have immediately nixed that Catholic virtual school. That they did not recognize these truths or nix the application tells us plenty about them, and none of it’s good.

These Christians do not like seeing other religions get the same perks they grab for themselves

This isn’t the first time that someone has had to remind Christians of the existence of other religions. Or that those other religions will ask for the same exact perks that Christians try to grab for themselves.

That is, after all, the very origin of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. In 2005 and at the height of the Creationism fight to usurp real science education in public schools, Bobby Henderson wrote about this fictional church in a letter. In his letter, Henderson satirically sought the teaching of all creation myths, not just Christian ones, in those schools.

Back in 2012, Louisiana Representative Valarie Hodges (R) received the shock of her life when her state began accepting religious schools for their voucher program—and a Muslim school applied to join the program. She said in her out-loud voice that she’d assumed that “religious” meant “Christian!” When she found out that “religious” means all religions, she changed her mind about supporting the voucher program.

Every Christmas, it seems, someone has to remind Christians in some city somewhere in America that if they get the privilege of putting up religious displays on public-owned land, then other religious groups (and nonreligious and even anti-religious ones) get to display their winter joy alongside them. Similarly, Christians regularly get offended when the representatives of religions they don’t like give invocations at taxpayer-funded government meetings.

And Christians regularly get outraged by atheist billboards, even if those billboards feature the most innocent, inoffensive statements imaginable.

In fact, Oklahoma’s Christians got to join the entitlement action there in 2010 when a billboard went up in their state. It simply asked, “Don’t believe in God? Join the club.” In response, a pastor in the state, Dan Fisher, said “It’s kind of like they’re poking a finger in your eye.” It makes one wonder if anyone has ever informed him that maybe some atheists don’t like all the religious billboards in Oklahoma that threaten people with Hell.

Rules for thee, never for me.

Christians benefit from the same wall of separation that everyone else does

Whether Sean Cummings’ warning hit home or some other factor made sense, Oklahoma’s school board unanimously rejected the Catholic school’s charter application. The school now has 30 days to amend its application and reapply for state funds.

One news site asserts that both sides are promising lawsuits if the final decision doesn’t go their way. So Catholic officials seem to be hoping for a big legal fight over the constitutionality of state-funded religious schools—and for that fight to go all the way to the Supreme Court. If they get their wish, and the highest court in America decides in their favor, then the floodgates will open. (This story’s appearance on the official Southern Baptist news site implies that their leaders are also watching carefully for their own opportunity to get in on the taxpayer-funded action.)

Of course, they could get humiliated long before that. That’s what finally turned the tide in the aforementioned Creationism fight. In 2005, Creationists finally got their wish: A big court fight to gain the privilege of pushing their mythology on public school students. But not only did they lose Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District, the (Republican-appointed) federal judge in the case, John E. Jones III, issued an opinion paper that absolutely killed and buried every claim Creationists make about both the scientific nature of their beliefs and the legality of teaching it to public school science students. Nowadays, Creationists still make noise, of course. But their efforts don’t get them anywhere outside of their own believers.

If Oklahoma’s leaders ever open those floodgates, then they will open for everyone. Christians wouldn’t like that any more than anybody else would.

Sometimes Christians just need a reminder

Cummings deliberately offered examples of religions that he thought fervent Christians would find most repulsive and infuriating. I’m sure he intended to provoke disgust by mentioning Pee-Wee Herman, who was arrested in 1991 for masturbating in an adult movie theater—and again in 2002 for possession of child porn, though that charge was pleaded down to obscenity in 2004. Similarly, he mentions people like Chris Korda and Lucien Greaves to shock the school board out of complacency.

I don’t know if he personally feels that way. It sounds like he does, but that might just be a public-speaking persona he wore for the audience. Clearly, though, he certainly thought a lot of his listeners would feel that way. And I suspect he’s quite correct.

It clearly drives some Christians spare that they can’t just ignore or trample every religion that runs wildly counter to their own. They can’t just pretend that Christianity is literally the only game in town. Though some dissenters definitely are nervous about speaking up (and have good reason to be), dissenters in general aren’t. Increasingly, they’re pushing back against religious overreach and Christian entitlement.

The more cultural power Christianity loses, the safer it becomes to express dissent.

However, this fight isn’t really about cultural power. It’s good that Christians are losing cultural power, don’t get me wrong. Just remember that that’s not what brought Christians to dominance and kept them there for over a thousand years.

No, this fight is about the real thing: Religious prerogative enshrined in law and protected by a sovereign.

It’s about something else, too.

The 4-14 Window is closing, closing, closed

Some years ago, evangelicals came up with the idea of the 4-14 Window. It means that if they can’t capture a child’s mind between those ages, then their window of opportunity closes forever for that child. After the age of 14, a completely unindoctrinated child’s chances of converting to Christianity are minimal at best.

At one time, Christian cultural dominance ensured that even non-Christian children got the basics of indoctrination. When I was growing up, I was surrounded by the artifacts of that dominance. In the Deep South and other similar areas controlled by evangelicals, that dominance was even more pronounced. If nothing else, children hopefully learned to be afraid of completely unsupported and unsupportable threats like Hell.

Mostly, though, almost everyone in a community was already Christian and already attended church. Church membership and attendance were both an indelible part of American culture for many years. In the Deep South, people there still ask new acquaintances “What church do you go to?” And they ask it as an icebreaker.

Years ago, it was also quite common for children to attend their friends’ churches as a social activity. Many churches ran (and some still run) what are called bus ministries. These involve them sending vans or repurposed school buses through local neighborhoods to pick up children, bring them to church, and take them home again afterward.

But that childhood indoctrination is far less likely to occur nowadays.

Things are getting desperate for Christians these days

More parents than ever don’t attend church, which means fewer children ever darken a church’s doorstep. With fewer children attending church, that’s far fewer social invitations to their peers. And advocates for the wall of separation get particularly and rightly feisty over Christians’ ongoing attempts to sneak indoctrination attempts past unwitting parents.

About a decade ago, researchers found that almost all flavors of Christianity were growing older on average. In other words, congregations were graying in place, with fewer and fewer young congregants joining older folks for church on Sundays.

If evangelicals were worried about the closing of the 4-14 window years ago, they must be panicking about it having closed on Gen Z. Last year, researcher Ryan Burge found that only 22% of today’s young adults are Protestant, with another 14% being Catholic. Meanwhile, about 48% of them are religiously unaffiliated.

Every year, every age cohort becomes less affiliated. But Gen Z isn’t just drifting away from Christianity. They seem more to be impervious to it. The marketing come-ons and threats that so affected kids in the 1980s and 1990s just seem to fly through them without striking anything solid.

The wall of separation protects children and parents from unwanted indoctrination attempts

This ongoing trend bodes very poorly for Christians, especially as Americans wait for Gen Alpha, who are children now, to reach adulthood. As a result, I fully expect the most desperate of them to ramp up their attempts to indoctrinate unaffiliated children.

They don’t care if they’re caught. Nor do they really care if they face punishment for doing it. If you remember evangelicals latching onto Dietrich Bonhoeffer a few years ago, that’s a big part of why. For years now, they’ve been comparing the loss of a tiny few of their unwarranted privileges to a literal religious persecution.

But they’d rather be able to do it all legally! That means they must somehow chip away at the wall of separation.

They could have gone a million different ways to knock over the wall of separation. And it’s no accident at all that this Catholic charter school’s creators are looking to enshrine their religious prerogative into law through a children’s school.

It’s children they need to capture now, before it’s too late forever. So it’s a great concern for children’s education that they will rationalize as the reason why a Catholic church organization in Oklahoma super-needs taxpayer money to open a religious school that will, by wild coincidence, also press religious beliefs onto children.

It’s just an anecdote, but maybe it explains Catholic strategy here

Way back in the late 1990s, I landed like a meteorite in the smack middle of Kansas. The town was famous for just a couple of things. First, a nearby Wild West-era fort had featured in a certain Kevin Costner movie that’d come out kinda recently. Second, its local community college apparently boasted the highest beer consumption per capita in the United States. I heard that statistic from a number of different sources, each time recited with pride.

The town’s large Catholic private boys’ prep/boarding school was less well-known, but most Catholic parents within about 300 miles sure knew about it. It drew students from all around. Quite a few young men in the town had attended there, despite it not having any grand number of actual Catholics roaming around. Indeed, most of its students didn’t seem to be Catholic. Their parents sent them there anyway in hopes of obtaining for them a superlative education. (Real shame about the sex abuse scandal that ripped through the place just a few years later.)

Almost all of the young men I met in that town had attended and graduated from this Catholic school. None of them were religious. One day, I asked one of its graduates about the place. It was a lovely early-summer day—not too hot. We were sitting together amiably on my front stoop drinking Shiners and looking at the morning-glories climbing the fence nearby. Yes, he told me, everyone had to attend chapel and learn basic Catholic dogma—even students who weren’t even Christian. When I asked if anyone ever actually converted to Catholicism because of that school, he just laughed at me.

“No,” he finally said, musing and glancing across at the flowers again. “It more like gave us reasons not to.”

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...