(Eds: Updates with details from emails, comment from superintendent, lawyer, professor, prosecutor. Adds background.)
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A school board that approved a Bible-based curriculum for pupils next fall broke into small groups and met privately with the program's chief backer, the president of the Hobby Lobby arts and crafts store chain, to get around an Oklahoma law that requires government bodies to be open to the public, according to emails obtained by The Associated Press.
The April 14 meetings with Steve Green and other members of the Museum of the Bible curriculum team occurred just hours before the Mustang School Board approved the course as an elective for the fall. The Mustang superintendent acknowledged insisting on separate presentations so the public wouldn't have to be invited, and did so at the direction of Green and his public relations representatives.
"I want to emphasize again that per my conversation with Ashleigh and the decision to break into two groups, that this will not be a public meeting," Superintendent Sean McDaniel wrote in one of the emails obtained under an Open Records Act request, referring to a woman at the Saxum public relations company, which represents Hobby Lobby and helped set up the meetings.
The Oklahoma County prosecutor said the move — which involved the board leaving its base in Canadian County and traveling to Oklahoma City — could create a potential violation if it is proven to be a deliberate attempt to go around laws that require government bodies to meet openly.
"Even if there's an out-of-county board, if they come here and meet in an attempt to circumvent the Open Meetings Act, just because they've met in a place that's not routine, doesn't mean they circumvent their requirements for meetings," Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater said. "If someone is going to that great of length to avoid quorum, it sounds like they're being pretty darn careful."
Boards can meet without a quorum present, Prater said, but no one at one meeting can be present at the other to give information to the other members, and no action can be taken by the members. Green was present at both meetings April 14, as was McDaniel. Others present for both include members of the curriculum design team and curators from the Green-backed Museum of the Bible.
Green, whose Hobby Lobby is leading a court case against the U.S. government over the Affordable Care Act and religious objections to some birth control, hopes to expose more children to the Bible by using it to teach archaeology, history and the arts — but some question whether he also wants to proselytize. The curriculum says people should rest on the Sabbath because God did so after six days of creation, and says people risk God's punishment if they do not obey him, according to a draft copy obtained by The Associated Press.
"I think the things to take away from it are that Green's involvement is much more than anyone is willing to admit, and they've been a bit disingenuous about it," said Andrew Seidel, a lawyer with the Freedom from Religion Foundation. "They deliberately tried to keep the meetings closed to the public, which is not something you would hope to see with a public curriculum."
Three of the district's five board members attended the meetings, according to the emails. In an interview, board member Jeff Landrith denied knowledge of the meetings until he was reminded that he had sent a note to McDaniel saying he would be unable to attend. He said later that the gathering did not sound like a "meeting." Other members of the board did not respond to emails or calls from The Associated Press.
McDaniel denied any illicit intent in holding separate meetings.
"This was something that we wanted to be able to have conversation about and ask questions. If we have the media and the public coming into Hobby Lobby headquarters with us, that can just be confusing and awkward since we're all seeing it for the first time," McDaniel said in an interview. "My thought was, 'Hey, let's hold off on having a public meeting until we see a little more."
Joey Senat, a journalism professor at Oklahoma State University and author of an open government blog for FOI Oklahoma Inc., said the Mustang board violated the spirit of the law by holding meaningful discussions about the curriculum outside earshot of school patrons.
"It ought to anger the public when they see a public body doing this," Senat said. "Nothing should make residents of Mustang madder than that."