ABC About-Face in Arkansas: State Officials Issue New Rags Barring Taxpayer-Funded Religion in Preschools, after AU Complaint
Brown, Simon, Church & State
State Rep. Justin Harris runs a preschool in Arkansas that has an overtly religious curriculum, but he doesn't see anything wrong with using taxpayer funds for his proselytizing.
"No laws were broken; no Constitution was violated," the West Fork Republican told The Christian Post. "A lot of people think we're teaching a certain way of life, but what we're doing is taking stories out of the Bible and converting them to make it more at a child-friendly level"
Harris is trying to play the victim because, thanks to a complaint from Americans United, state officials are moving to bar his school and others from sponsoring prayer, Bible study or other religious instruction during the seven-hour school day - if they want to keep getting state grants.
"Technically, Harris is right that he didn't violate the Constitution," Americans United Staff Attorney Ian Smith told Church & State. "The administrators of the Arkansas Better Choice (ABC) program violated the Constitution by funding Harris' religious activities. Harris is trying to make it sound like he is being persecuted for following his religious beliefs, but it isn't about him."
Contrary to Harris' claims, his West Fork preschool, Growing God's Kingdom, has a stated mission to "share the love of Jesus" with students, and the school operates with a Christian curriculum that includes a "Bible time" for verses, stories and prayer.
The school's handbook also assures parents that staff members will "strive too [sic] ensure that your child feels the love of Jesus Christ while preparing them for Kindergarten." The preschoolers, it continues, will be taught "the word of God" so that they can "spread the word of God to others."
That mission isn't a problem on its own, but Growing God's Kingdom has received over $1 million in state ABC funds since 2005, including $534,000 for the 2010-2011 school year. As a result, Americans United has worked to get the regulations governing the ABC program changed so that Harris and others can't keep using taxpayer money to pay for proselytizing.
Americans United attorneys sent a letter No.1 to the Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS) and the Arkansas Department of Education asking for an investigation into Harris' school and remedial action. (See "ABC Spells Trouble In Arkansas," January 2012 Church & State.)
"The Constitution's Establishment Clause prohibits the provision of public aid for religious activity, such as worship or religious instruction," AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser and Smith said in the letter. "The federal courts - including the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which has jurisdiction over Arkansas - have held that this prohibition extends not only to direct spending of government funds on religious activities, but also to the use of government funds to pay for items or activities that are secular in themselves yet are used to support religious programming,"
A second AU letter on Jan. 3 complained about religious indoctrination at two other ABC-funded preschools, Open Arms Learning Center and Noah's Ark Preschool in Mountain Home, Ark. Both schools are operated by Sen. Johnny Key (R-Mountain Home).
As a result of Americans United's complaint, DHS performed an investigation and has proposed regulations that would assure that public funds are spent in compliance with the U. …