Leonard Leo

Leonard Leo speaks at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C. on April 23, 2019.

(Photo: Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Leonard Leo Allies Lead Effort to Establish Publicly Funded Religious School

A legal clinic at University of Notre Dame has helped represent the school while its officials have maintained ties to right-wing Supreme Court justices.

Oklahoma's newly approved religious charter school, which proponents hope will serve as the basis of a legal test case before the U.S. Supreme Court that could alter the principle of separation of church and state, is being boosted by a number of right-wing groups with ties to Federalist Society co-chair Leonard Leo, according to new reporting—including a legal clinic with links to some of the high court's most conservative justices.

As Common Dreams reported in July, the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board earlier this year gave preliminary approval for St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School, which would be the country's first publicly funded religious school if it survives legal challenges. The school board also approved a contract with the institution in October.

Politico on Friday detailed groups that are aiding the effort to open St. Isidore, including a legal clinic at the University of Notre Dame that was announced shortly before Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed.

At the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Initiative (RLI), law professor Nicole Stelle Garnett is representing St. Isidore in a case before the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which was initiated by state Republican Attorney General Gentner Drummond. The state argues that the establishment of St. Isidore violates both the Oklahoma and U.S. constitutions; the state requires charters schools to be nonsectarian by statute.

Since representing the school, Garnett has also joined the board of the right-wing Federalist Society, which has ties to the Supreme Court's conservative justices and which has helped reshape the federal court system, pushing for the confirmations of far-right judges.

Garnett is close personal friends with Barrett and has hosted Justice Clarence Thomas at her home in South Bend, while Brendan Wilson, a corporate attorney who joined the clinic's legal team in 2021, purchased Barrett's home for nearly $1 million around the time that the RLI began advocating for right-wing causes at the Supreme Court by filing amicus briefs.

That real estate deal drew scrutiny from ethics watchdogs earlier this year, as reports surfaced of Thomas and Justice Samuel Alito accepting luxury trips and other financial gifts from Republican donors.

The RLI also announced in 2020 that its director, Stephanie Barclay, would take a leave of absence to serve as a clerk for another conservative Supreme Court justice, Neil Gorsuch—during the same period that the clinic was working with St. Isidore.

In 2022, the clinic funded a trip to Rome for Alito.

Paul Collins, a legal studies professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told Politico that St. Isidore's work with the Leo-linked RLI shows that "the Christian conservative legal movement... has its fingerprints all over what's going on in Oklahoma."

"They recognize the opportunity to get a state to fund a religious institution is a watershed moment," Collins told the outlet. "They have a very, very sympathetic audience at the Supreme Court. When you have that on the Supreme Court you're going to put a lot of resources into bringing these cases quickly."

A spokesperson for Leo declined to comment for Politico's article. A spokesperson for RLI declined to tell the outlet whether Barclay had been involved in work on behalf of St. Isidore before, during, or after she worked with Gorsuch, and whether Garnett and Wilson had discussed the school's case with any justices.

Alliance Defending Freedom, the right-wing group that has lobbied to curtail reproductive and LGBTQ+ rights through the courts, is representing the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, and counts among its financial benefactors the Donors Trust, a group that government watchdog Accountable.US called the "'Dark Money ATM' for Hate Groups" last month.

Leo's Judicial Education Project, which pushes for the appointment of conservative Supreme Court justices and promoted views that deny the scientific consensus on climate change, has counted Donors Trust as its main beneficiary.

Peter Greene, a retired teacher and blogger who focuses on education issues, said the push for a publicly funded Christian school "has attracted all the usual Christianist power."

Changing the Supreme Court's interpretation of separation of church and state, said progressive news outlet The Tennessee Holler, "has always been their goal."

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