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"It's hard to think of a clearer violation of the religious freedom of Oklahoma taxpayers and public-school families than the state establishing the nation's first religious public charter school," said one group within minutes of a state board approving the school's application.
Within minutes of a state charter school board in Oklahoma approving a plan on Monday to open what would be the first religious charter school in the United States, advocates for the nation's bedrock laws separating church and state announced plans to file a legal challenge against the proposal.
Allowing the Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and Diocese of Tulsa to open a taxpayer-funded virtual charter school in which religious education would be a key part of the curriculum would mark "a sea change for American democracy," said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Going against the advice of its own legal counsel and disregarding extensive testimony and legal analysis from Americans United regarding why the creation of the school would violate the U.S. Constitution, the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board voted 3-2 to allow the religious groups to open St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School.
The school would be entirely government-funded, but like other charter schools—which have been criticized by public education advocates—it would be independently managed, in this case by the Catholic archdiocese and diocese.
"It's hard to think of a clearer violation of the religious freedom of Oklahoma taxpayers and public-school families than the state establishing the nation's first religious public charter school," said Laser. "No public school family should fear that their child will be required by charter schools to take theology classes or be expelled for failing to conform to religious doctrines. And the government should never force anyone to fund religious education."
"In a country built on the principle of separation of church and state, public schools must never be allowed to become Sunday schools," she added.
The ACLU said it would join Americans United in challenging the plan.
\u201cWe, @americansunited, and our partners are planning legal action to stop this unconstitutional plan.\n\nOur public schools must be free from religious indoctrination and open to all students.\u201d— ACLU (@ACLU) 1685998053
Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt applauded the decision of the board—which is made up of his appointees—but state Attorney General Gentner Drummond, also a Republican, said it was "extremely disappointing that board members violated their oath in order to fund religious schools with our tax dollars."
The U.S. Supreme Court has handed down two rulings in recent years signaling that its right-wing majority could rule in favor of the religious charter school if a case reaches the high court. Last year the court ruled 6-3 that the state of Maine was not permitted to exclude religious schools from a state tuition program, and in 2020 it ruled 5-4 that states must allow private schools to participate in state scholarships.
"Not long ago, this would have been [dead on arrival]" at the Supreme Court, said Los Angeles Times legal affairs columnist Harry Litman. "But they're banking on the Supreme Court to break down the wall between church and state."
The Oklahoma Rural Schools Coalition called the board's decision "a loss for American values, the rule of law, and our Oklahoma Constitution."
"Three unelected voices in the state of Oklahoma have put the separation of church and state in peril for the entire nation," said the group. "Oklahoma's public schools are among the lowest funded in the nation. We cannot afford to divert dollars to unconstitutional religious schools. Public education dollars must be protected for accountable public schools that welcome and serve all students."
While the IAEA said it doesn't see an "immediate risk" to the nuclear plant's safety, the agency warned that a lack of cooling water "would cause fuel melt and inoperability of the emergency diesel generators."
Already heightened concerns about the operational safety of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine intensified further on Tuesday after a major downriver dam was destroyed, forcing thousands to evacuate as water surged through the breached structure.
The wrecked barrier held back a body of water equal in size to Utah's Great Salt Lake, and the reservoir supplies water for the cooling of the Zaporizhzhia facility, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. The reservoir also serves as a key source of drinking water.
Ukraine and Russia blamed each other for the dam's destruction, which would constitute a war crime under the Geneva Conventions. Reutersnoted that "neither side offered immediate public evidence" to substantiate their accusations.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has been monitoring the Zaporizhzhia plant for months and vocally warning about ongoing threats to its integrity, said Tuesday it was closely examining the fallout from the dam breach but there was "no immediate risk to the safety of the plant."
But Rafael Mariano Grossi, the IAEA's director-general, stressed Tuesday that an "absence of cooling water in the essential cooling water systems for an extended period of time would cause fuel melt and inoperability of the emergency diesel generators" at Zaporizhzhia, which is currently controlled by Russian forces.
The plant is roughly 90 miles upriver from the breached dam.
"The main line of cooling water is fed from the reservoir and pumped up through channels near the thermal power plant to the site," said Grossi. "It is estimated that the water through this route should last for a few days. Water in the reservoir was at around 16.4 meters at 8:00 am. If it drops below 12.7 meters, then it can no longer be pumped."
Grossi noted that "there are a number of alternative sources of water," including a "large cooling pond next to the site that by design is kept above the height of the reservoir."
"It is therefore vital that this cooling pond remains intact. Nothing must be done to potentially undermine its integrity," he added. "I call on all sides to ensure nothing is done to undermine that. My trip to ZNPP next week was planned and now it is essential. I will go."
\u201cThe Kakhovka Dam appears to be gone. This is going to have far-reaching consequences for weeks and months to come. \n\nHere are some very early thoughts. (video via Ukrhydroenergo Telegram)\ud83e\uddf5\u201d— Geoff Brumfiel (@Geoff Brumfiel) 1686030656
The Associated Pressreported Tuesday that "the potentially far-reaching environmental and social consequences of the disaster quickly became clear as homes, streets, and businesses flooded downstream and emergency crews began evacuations."
James Elder, a UNICEF spokesperson, said in a statement that the impacts of the dam's destruction will be acutely felt by children, many of whom will be left homeless and without reliable access to clean drinking water.
"This is yet another merciless attack on infrastructure that is vital to the well-being of everyday Ukrainians," said Elder.
Outside experts and critics of nuclear power have been warning for more than a year that the longer the war drags on, the greater the threat of a catastrophe at Zaporizhzhia, which has already been significantly damaged by shelling.
In a March 2022 report, Greenpeace wrote that "in the event of a loss of cooling and resultant fire in any of the spent fuel pools at Zaporizhzhia, the potential for a very large release of radioactivity would have a devastating effect not only on Ukraine but also its neighboring countries, including Russia, and potentially, depending on the weather conditions and wind directions, on a large part of Europe."
Ukrainian and Russian officials traded blame for the disastrous dam breach.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted Tuesday that Russia "blew it up," an alleged attack that he called a "bomb of mass environmental destruction."
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, for his part, said during a news briefing that "we can state unequivocally that we are talking about deliberate sabotage by the Ukrainian side."
Meanwhile, according toReuters, "some Russian-installed officials said the dam had burst on its own."
"Bring our 'Audit the Pentagon' bill to the floor," said Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan.
The Democratic co-chair of the Defense Spending Reduction Caucus challenged House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to act on his words after the Republican leader conceded Monday that there is wasteful spending at the Pentagon, which has never passed an independent audit.
"We need to get the efficiencies in the Pentagon," McCarthy toldCNN, criticizing GOP senators for seeking out ways to expand the military budget beyond the level set in the newly passed debt ceiling agreement.
"Think about it, $886 billion. You don't think there's waste? They failed the last five audits," said McCarthy. "I consider myself a hawk, but I don't want to waste money. So I think we've got to find efficiencies."
The $886 billion figure McCarthy referenced is the military spending topline for fiscal year 2024 that House Republican leaders and the Biden administration agreed to as part of their deal to raise the debt limit.
That spending level, which still must be finalized in the appropriations process, is right in line with President Joe Biden's budget request, which calls for a $28 billion increase over the current military budget of $858 billion.
McCarthy voted for that budget late last year even as critics condemned it as outrageously wasteful.
In response to McCarthy's CNN interview, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.)—who has been demanding cuts to Pentagon spending for years—tweeted that the Republican leader should finally "put his money where his mouth is and bring our 'Audit the Pentagon' bill to the floor."
"There is plenty of waste and fraud at the Pentagon," wrote Pocan, who co-chairs the Defense Spending Reduction Caucus alongside Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.).
\u201c.@SpeakerMcCarthy is right! There is plenty of waste and fraud at the Pentagon. He should put his money where his mouth is and bring our #AuditThePentagon bill to the floor. https://t.co/1Z4O1yiGmC\u201d— Rep. Mark Pocan (@Rep. Mark Pocan) 1686002123
The bipartisan Audit the Pentagon Act of 2023 would "administer a 0.5% cut to the budget of any office at the Pentagon that does not receive an audit for the first year of the bill's enactment," according to a summary of the legislation. That penalty would rise to 1% in subsequent years, exempting "funding for personnel, families, and military healthcare" from automatic cuts.
Of the bill's 19 co-sponsors, eight are Republicans—though McCarthy is not one of them.
The speaker's remarks Monday came as war hawks in the Senate Republican caucus continued to express dismay over the military spending level set in the debt limit deal, even though it would bring the Pentagon budget to a record high while cutting spending on education, housing programs, and other critical services.
Under the agreement, which drew applause from the CEO of one of the world's leading weapons manufacturers, military outlays would account for nearly 56% of total discretionary spending. But that's apparently not enough for Senate Republicans.
"We're playing a dangerous game with our national security," claimed Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). "The bill [McCarthy] produced is inadequate to the threats we face. If the Republican speaker takes the position that we're going to be tough on China... I don't see how we do that with a declining Navy."
Graham and other Republican senators—along with Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.)—are "looking for creative ways to increase the Pentagon budget" beyond the $886 billion topline, Politicoreported last week.
"The most likely vehicle is the next emergency supplemental for Ukraine, which they hope to cram with cash for other Pentagon priorities that normally wouldn't be in the measure," according to Politico. "But doing so could also mean a partisan clash if Democrats oppose reopening the deal through a supplemental without some relief for domestic spending priorities."
The looming fight over Pentagon spending comes months after the Congressional Budget Office issued a report concluding that "the Department of Defense can't accurately account for or report on its physical assets or spending." The department has previously worked to cover up evidence of its massive waste, which is often a boon to arms makers.
Last month, a former top contract negotiator at the Pentagon toldCBS News that "the gouging that takes place" at the Defense Department "is unconscionable," with private companies dramatically overcharging the government for military equipment and other items.
Those comments led a group of senators, including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), to demand a Pentagon investigation into price gouging by top government contractors such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Raytheon.
"The DOD can no longer expect Congress or the American taxpayer to underwrite record military spending while simultaneously failing to account for the hundreds of billions it hands out every year to spectacularly profitable private corporations," the lawmakers wrote in a letter to the Pentagon chief.