Owasso City Council’s recent push to call for the reconsideration of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2020 McGirt ruling has garnered strong opposition from local tribal members.
Kelsey Cooper, Cherokee Nation citizen and Choctaw descendant, for example, showed up at Council’s latest meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 16, along with several other peaceful protestors, to speak against an amicus brief filed by the City of Owasso.
“We are here, and we are the backbone of this city,” Cooper said. “I’ve been around the world, and there is nowhere that I feel safer than between 76th and 96th Street, so imagine how hurt I and many others were when we heard about the amicus brief.”
Olivia Gray, a citizen of Osage Nation, added, “I need you to really think about your partnership with tribes and what this is going to result in. This is huge for us. I think you need to rescind the amicus brief.”
That friend-of-the-court brief, jointly submitted by the cities of Owasso and Tulsa in early October, concerns the case of State of Oklahoma vs. Victor Manuel Castro-Huerta.
The Supreme Court recently overturned the sentence and judgment for Castro-Huerta, 36, whom a Tulsa County jury convicted of child neglect in 2017. His repeal came after Jimcy McGirt, a 71-year-old Native American, successfully argued that he should have been prosecuted for child sex abuse crimes in federal rather than state court, where he was convicted.
As a result, the Supreme Court redefined what prosecutors considered “Indian Country” in eastern Oklahoma when it comes to jurisdictional crime enforcement. State litigators — including those in Owasso, which is located within Cherokee Nation boundaries — now lack the authority to govern charges against Native American defendants.
Owasso city prosecutor Beth Anne Childs said this decision has created “considerable difficulties” for local officials.
“They (Oklahoma’s tribes) are actually having to bring in assistant U.S. attorneys … to try all of these cases,” Childs said in a previous story. “They really are having to create a court system practically from scratch … so it’s a challenging time.”
Owasso City Manager Warren Lehr echoed Childs’ sentiments, adding, “The aftereffects of the McGirt decision have been enormous and have caused great disruption to our law enforcement and court systems.”
Cherokee Nation councilor Joe Deere, however, who joined his fellow tribal members at Owasso Council’s Nov. 16 meeting, said the City’s efforts to potentially overturn the McGirt ruling was a “misinformed decision” to join a “frivolous suit.”
“This decision was a slap in the face to your tribal partners … basically not having the tribal consultation or getting educated on this case before making a radical decision,” Deere said. “To think that the Supreme Court would change its ruling just because you don’t like it is ridiculous.”
The roughly dozen peaceful protestors who showed up to support Deere carried signs that read, “Treaties are the highest law of the land … Respect us or expect us,” and “Tribal Leaders. Legal Scholars. Survivors of USA Genocide. Not Fringe Activists.”
Lehr reemphasized the City’s focus on the welfare of its local citizens, both native and non-native, as a key reason for moving forward with the amicus brief.
“The City of Owasso’s primary concern is public safety,” Lehr told the activists. “If that be deemed as nearsighted on this issue, we understand and respect that decision and those beliefs.”
Lehr did, however, apologize to tribal citizens for not initially conveying his staff’s plan to call for the reconsideration of the McGirt case, which he admitted has “many additional ramifications beyond law enforcement.”
“As I and (Owasso Police) Chief (Dan) Yancey apologized to Mr. Deere at our meeting on Oct. 29 for not communicating our intents to participate in the brief, I apologize tonight to you all for not communicating our intents,” he said.
Following the Supreme Court’s ruling, Owasso officers have been cross-deputized and act as tribal marshals, transporting defendants to Rogers County Jail or Cherokee Nation District Court in Tahlequah. The new measure — also approved by Owasso Council in October — is among those efforts that will help improve this process, according to Childs.
“One of the challenges that we have had is a place to incarcerate members of the federally recognized tribes,” Childs said in a previous story. “This particular agreement would allow Owasso police officers … to place tribal defendants into the City of Owasso jail.”
Despite the City’s participation in the amicus brief, Lehr commended tribal members for their efforts to establish an effective system under the McGirt ruling.
“We have full faith and confidence in the Cherokee Nation’s ability to develop a comprehensive law enforcement and judicial system that will meet the expectations of all of our citizens for public safety,” Lehr told tribal members at the Nov. 16 meeting.
“We appreciate greatly Mr. Deere’s indication … that the Cherokee Nation remains committed to working out a compact, or further agreements, with the City of Owasso that will be beneficial for all of our citizens … We greatly value our relationship with the Cherokee Nation.”
After a flurry of court filings Friday, Nov. 12, and early the following Monday, Ascension St. John Health System’s COVID-19 vaccination employee requirement remained sidelined while a judge determines whether it is legal.
But which judge, or which court for that matter, will decide the case remains undetermined.
Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor filed suit in Tulsa County District Court that Friday on behalf of the state against Ascension St. John — which includes its area affiliates, including Owasso’s hospital — claiming the health care company’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement violated both state and federal law.
St. Louis-based Ascension Health had issued a Friday deadline for its employees and vendors to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or face suspension and then firing by Jan. 4, according to the state’s petition.
On Friday, Tulsa County Presiding District Judge William LaFortune granted the state’s request for an emergency temporary restraining order that prohibited Ascension St. John from enforcing the deadline on employees who don’t have an approved religious exemption.
LaFortune set a Dec. 1 hearing date to determine whether a temporary injunction should be granted while the attorney general investigates discrimination complaints regarding the vaccination policy.
LaFortune also ordered Ascension to rescind any suspensions, terminations or “other adverse actions” that occurred, and he granted a 30-day period for its employees to submit requests for religious accommodations.
The state wants LaFortune to decide, while Ascension is pushing for an outcome in federal court.
Also on Friday Ascension St. John removed the case to Tulsa federal court, arguing that it is the proper venue.
There, the case bounced around among three federal judges, with U.S. District Judges Gregory Frizzell and Claire Eagan recusing themselves before U.S. District Judge Terence Kern was randomly assigned the case.
On Monday, Oklahoma amended its case before the federal court to remove any claims that Ascension violated federal laws, presumably to wipe out any claims by Ascension that the case belonged in federal court.
The state also filed a motion Monday in federal court to have the case relocated back to Tulsa County District Court.
Ascension, for its part, filed motions to dissolve the temporary restraining order as well as papers to dismiss the case entirely.
State officials claim that Ascension St John’s vaccination requirement is unlawful because it violates the Oklahoma Anti-Discrimination Act.
O’Connor claims in court filings that Ascension’s process for approving religious exemptions is a sham and asked the state court for more time to review complaints from Ascension Health workers.
Meanwhile, attorneys for Ascension argued that the temporary restraining order should be dissolved because it was improperly issued by the state court.
Among the reasons Ascension cited as improper are:
Ascension had notified the state court that the case was being removed to federal court.
The state court did not provide Ascension the opportunity to be heard on the state’s motion to seek the temporary restraining order, and the petition that the state provided to Ascension had not been verified.
The restraining order requires Ascension to undo events that occurred before the order was issued.
The state failed to establish that the vaccination policy would cause the irreparable harm needed for a judge to issue an emergency temporary restraining order.
O’Connor said late Monday that he sent a cease and desist letter to Ascension legal counsel, accusing the company of violating LaFortune’s temporary restraining order.
In a press release issued by O’Connor’s office about 8 p.m. the attorney general asks Ascension to reinstate all suspended or terminated employees who sought a religious exemption from the mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations.
O’Connor based his request on a report by KTUL, Channel 8, that quoted a nurse who claimed she was suspended despite the judge’s order.
Forty-seven local teachers had 70,131 reasons to smile last week.
That figure translates into the total dollar amount the Owasso Education Foundation distributed to area schools on Thursday as part of the organization’s annual grant patrol (see photo gallery).
“This day is incredible, and it’s incredible because it’s everything that’s good about Owasso Public Schools,” Superintendent Amy Fichtner said in a previous story about the event, which is now in its 31st year.
Ator Elementary received the most funds, with seven teachers awarded over $14,000 in grants; followed by Morrow Elementary, with another seven educators allocated more than $11,000; and then Owasso 8th Grade Center, where five teachers received nearly $8,400.
Nine other schools sites each received just over $4,800 or less to go toward various supplies and equipment to improve their students’ everyday learning experience.
Mary Purvis at Smith Elementary, for example, received over $2,200 in grants to incorporate the curriculum, “Secret Stories: Learning to Read with Secrets,” into her classroom.
“Secret Stories is a way to teach phonics sounds and reading through stories and motions that kids can understand,” Purvis said. “There are different little medleys; there’s songs that go along with it. It gives kids a ‘why’ of why something says a certain thing.”
Melissa Daigle at Stone Canyon, who received nearly $2,800 for her project, “A Room with a View,” added, “We have a need for microscopes and micro-viewers in our school, so I wrote the grant for that … so we would have that accessible for everyone to use for each grade.”
Other teachers like Hodson Elementary’s Rebecca Brantley, was presented with a $130 grant for “Bringing STEM Alive in the Classroom.”
“We decided, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have a hydroponics garden in our classroom and watch it through the year, baby and nurture all these wonderful plants, and then we could transport them to the garden in the spring?’” Brantley said. “So we’re really excited.”
Sarah Wehner at Mills Elementary used her $180 endowment, titled “Let Your Voice be Heard,” for a unique piece of technology that the school hasn’t implemented yet.
“It’s literally like a dodgeball microphone for the classroom,” Wehner said. “So the kids can throw it around and toss, especially in pre-K where they’re learning to use their voice and speak loud and proud, this is just a fun tool for them to utilize in the classroom.”
The grants distributed on Thursday were made possible through funds raised at various OEF fundraisers, including the Patriot Classic Golf Tournament and other private donations.
For more information about the Owasso Education Foundation, visit owassoeducationfoundation.org.