Gov.-elect Kevin Stitt’s pick to lead his transition team is facing heat for his connection to a Christian nonprofit organization that has been accused of making disparaging comments about Muslims, gays and liberals.
Marc Nuttle, who was named to head Stitt’s transition team last week, abruptly resigned Wednesday as a long-serving board member and chairman of the South Carolina-based Oak Initiative after Oklahoma Watch inquired about his connection to the group.
The Oak Initiative, a 501(c)(4) “social welfare” nonprofit, has attracted controversy since its formation in 2010 and was named as part of the U.S. Islamophobia Network by the Council of American-Islamic Relations.
In IRS documents, the Oak Initiative states that its mission is to “unite, mobilize, equip and activate Christians to find and promote Christian Solutions to Current World Issues.”
The group also faced backlash in 2015 from gay-rights groups after the Michigan chapter of the Oak Initiative set up billboards that showed a gay man with a rainbow painted on his face surrounded by the words “Not Born this Way” and “Homosexuality is a behavior. Not a civil right.”
The Oak Initiative distributes its content to members by email as well as posts content on its website and Social media. The group’s messaging often centers on the threat of Islamic extremism, the Muslim Brotherhood and the dangers of Sharia law.
It has also launched broader attacks on the Islamic community, including essays that cast doubt on whether mosques can be considered “churches,” and a piece by Joyner that concludes “even in the watered down versions (of Islamic beliefs), it is clear that this religion promotes the destruction or enslavement of all who do not adhere to it.”
In a 2010 video for the Oak Initiative, board member and retired Lt. Gen. W.G. “Jerry” Boykin said, “Islam itself is not just a religion” and should not be protected under the First Amendment, “particularly given that those who are following the dictates of the Quran are under an obligation to destroy our Constitution and replace it with Sharia law.”
The group frequently posts videos, articles and social media content supporting conservative causes and targeting Democrats and liberals.
A recent example from a Nov. 6 Twitter post from the group’s official page compared liberals to Nazis, saying, “Will history show the Left’s effort to use/sway young voters as analogous to Hitler’s Brownshirts?”
Nuttle, a Norman attorney who has worked on several GOP presidential campaigns, including managing evangelical leader Pat Robertson’s failed 1988 bid, has avoided becoming entangled in the group’s public controversies. His work with has largely focused on a analyzing political developments or promoting conservative economic policies from a Christian perspective.
Before Nuttle’s resignation from the Oak Initiative Wednesday, he had served as a board member since 2010 and chairman of the board since 2011.
In a statement to Oklahoma Watch, Nuttle said he joined the Oak Initiative because of its focus on “developing leadership skills according to a biblical worldview of being salt and light to the world.”
Without offering specifics, Nuttle said, “in subsequent years, statements have been made that I do not agree with and that do not represent my views.”
“Kevin (Stitt) has been committed to bringing diversity of thought and new Oklahoma leaders to the table, and we continue to make this the forefront of the transition team’s mission,” Nuttle said.
Donelle Harder, a spokeswoman for Stitt, said the governor-elect and his team were unaware of the Oak Initiative or Nuttle’s involvement when he was named transition chairman. Nuttle also serves on the board of the Oklahoma Health Care Authority.
“Nuttle was chosen because of his wealth of knowledge and exposure to the process of building a successful team of public servants,” she said in a statement. “As Kevin Stitt said throughout the campaign trail, he is committed to representing all 4 million Oklahomans and ensuring all voices are heard as we work to grow and make our state top ten.”
Harder added that as transition chairman, Nuttle is responsible for setting the agenda at a weekly transition meeting, making sure transition deadlines are met and facilitating discussion about Stitt’s priorities in office.
Adam Soltani, executive director of the Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Nuttle’s connection to the Oak Initiative is enough to raise “great concern” about how the Stitt administration will deal with the Muslim community.
“More than anything, we are concerned about how the next four years will look for us as Muslims,” Soltani said. “If one of the first things that happens is the head of the transition team has a relationship with an anti-Muslim group, that’s not the best way to get things started.”
Elizabeth Horn, director of programing for Oklahoma Freedom, which promotes rights for LGBTQ persons, said Nuttle’s appointment to the team suggests the new administration will “deprioritize Oklahoma’s LGBTQ community.”
“Oklahomans should reasonably expect that our elected officials will safeguard the rights and protections due to all citizens of the state,” Horn said before news of Nuttle’s resignation was made public. “Mr. Nuttle makes no effort to conceal his intent to undermine the separation of church and state in his past advisements.”
Soltani said even if the Oak Initiative’s more controversial remarks did not directly come from Nuttle, it is worrisome that Nuttle remained chairman despite disagreeing with what some of its members said.
Soltanti called on Stitt to declare that this type of rhetoric will not be tolerated in his administration.
“Silence in this day and age translates to being complicit,” he said. “The governor always has the power to say we won’t allow hatred to be propagated in the Capitol building. At this point he has to prove it, and that could be just a willingness to sit down with members of the Muslim community and hear our concerns.”
Soltani said his group requested a meeting with Stitt, and with new incoming lawmakers, to discuss issues facing the Muslim community. As of Wednesday, Soltani had not heard back from the governor-elect.