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Lawsuit Prompts Okla. Lawmaker to Seek Amendment (Feb 22, 2012)

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Angered by a lawsuit challenging a scholarship program for children with disabilities, an Oklahoma lawmaker has introduced a bill that would abolish a section of the state constitution that prohibits the use of public money for religious purposes.

A resolution seeking a statewide vote passed the House Rules Committee on Wednesday on an 11-1 vote. If given final approval, the resolution would be placed on the November general election ballot.

Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, said the measure is in response to a lawsuit challenging a scholarship program he helped create, which allows public money to be used to send children with certain documented disabilities - such as autism, deafness, blindness or speech impairment - to private schools, including religious schools.

Public schools in Jenks and Tulsa have filed a lawsuit challenging the scholarship program as a violation of Article 2, Section 5, of the Oklahoma Constitution, which specifically prohibits public money from being used - directly or indirectly - for any sectarian institution.

But Nelson maintains the state already spends billions of dollars on programs like Medicaid, which goes to religious-affiliated hospitals, or college scholarships, which can be used at private schools with a religious mission. Other public money is used to fund entities with religious ties that provide foster care and preschool programs, he said.

"I would oppose it if this was just supporting the Baptist church or the Methodist church so they can go out and do ministry. That should be prohibited," Nelson said. "(But) we cannot have a situation where overnight we declare Medicaid, a bunch of foster care programs, preschool, college tuition assistance grants and all of that unconstitutional."

Opponents of the measure urged lawmakers to exercise caution before tinkering with a fundamental tenet of the Constitution.

"If Rep. Nelson is truly concerned about a very narrow issue, then it doesn't make any sense why he would go after our state Constitution with a hatchet, rather than proposing a more narrow law to address his specific concern," said former lawmaker Ryan Kiesel, who is now the executive director of the Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"Any time we talk about amending the Constitution, I would encourage that we do it in a thoughtful manner, rather than just as a knee-jerk reaction to some briefs that have been filed in court."

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