Lawmakers defend religious instruction in state-funded schools
The group asked the state to investigate whether Growing God’s Kingdom, a preschool in West Fork owned by state Rep. Justin Harris, R-West Fork, spends tax dollars it receives from the Arkansas Better Chance program to promote religion. A licensing specialist with the state Department of Human Services did an on-site inspection Friday in response to the request but no report was immediately available, said DHS spokeswoman Amy Webb.
Harris’ school is not the only overtly religious preschool in Arkansas that receives ABC funding. Among the nearly 300 preschools awarded a total of $102 million in ABC funds for the current school year are several run by churches and several that are not run by churches but have overtly Christian names.
In the latter category are Harris’ school, which was awarded $534,600 in ABC money this year, and Noah’s Ark Preschool in Mountain Home, which is owned by state Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, and was awarded $194,400 this year.
Key also owns Open Arms Learning Center in Mountain Home, which was awarded $97,200 in ABC funds this year.
Arkansas Code 6-45-106(a)(1)(B) states that any application for ABC money from a sectarian or sectarian-affiliated program must be reviewed “to assure that any approval of funding will not result in a violation of the United States Constitution, Amendment One.”
Among other things, the First Amendment prohibits any law respecting the establishment of religion and guarantees free exercise of religion.
Webb said ABC funds 7 1/2 hours of instruction per day, and any religious instruction that a preschool chooses to offer must occur outside of those hours and be privately funded.
ABC, the state’s early childhood education program, is mostly funded by the state but it does receive some federal dollars.
Harris and Key both say the instruction at their schools includes Bible lessons, and they see nothing wrong with that.
“Saying that we’re violating the Constitution is just totally wrong,” Harris said. “We also have freedom of speech.”
Harris said the Bible lessons at his school occur outside the hours of the ABC program, in accordance with DHS’ instructions. He also said children at the school are exposed to Christianity “throughout the day,” even if it’s just through teachers saying, “Jesus loves you.”
Key said the children at his schools pray in the morning and before meals and receive one Bible lesson per week. The lesson is incorporated into the ABC program, he said.
“This month, because it’s November and because of Thanksgiving, they’re talking about being thankful,” he said. “Our (ABC) coordinator said they’ll incorporate a Bible verse about being thankful.”
Is that using taxpayer dollars to fund religious instruction?
“I won’t say that it is not,” Key said, but he added that DHS’ Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education “has looked at our program and has said that it’s within the guidelines.”
Asked if incorporating Bible lessons into the ABC program is acceptable, Webb said, “They cannot do Bible lessons during hours funded by ABC. If that’s happening, then we’ll need to find out about it and have corrective action taken.”
In its letter requesting the investigation of Harris’ school, Americans United said courts have ruled that the prohibition against providing public funds for religious activity includes not only direct funding but also indirect funding.
LeeWood Thomas of Little Rock, spokesman for the Central Arkansas Coalition of Reason, which recently won a court battle to have atheist signs placed on Little Rock buses, said he shares Americans United’s concerns, though the coalition has not taken on that particular issue.
Thomas said that if an organization that sponsors religious activity receives public money, that frees up more of its private money to be used to promote religion, so in a sense the government is promoting religion.