The Arkansas Constitution is pretty clear on religious liberty.
In Article II, Sec. 24, it insists that “no man can, of right, be compelled to attend, erect, or support any place of worship; or to maintain any ministry against his consent.” Article XIV, Sec. 2 reemphasizes that point, barring the using of the public school fund “for any other than the respective purposes to which it belongs.”
And that’s in addition to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which has long been held to bar taxpayer aid to religion.
Therefore, Americans United attorneys were quite surprised to find that a West Fork, Ark., preschool called Growing God’s Kingdom has received over $1 million in state funds since 2005. The school, it turns out, is quite clearly a sectarian ministry.
Staff members are required 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 handbook 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.”
Children’s clothing depicting characters that may be affiliated with witches, goblins, ghost [sic] or evil content” is prohibited. (So long, Casper!)
On Nov. 1, Americans United sent a letter to the Arkansas Department of Human Services and the Arkansas Department of Education asking for an investigation and remedial action. Arkansas Better Chance for School Success funds, the letter said, should not be used to pay for religion.
Preschool owner State Rep. Justin Harris (R-West Fork) seems confused about the constitutional mandates at issue. He told Arkansas News that church-state separation exists “to protect the people from tyranny, from being forced to believe a certain way and to have a certain religion,” but that it does not eliminate “the government from having Christianity part of it.”
Atheist children may enroll at the preschool, he told the news agency, but their parents are told that religion is part of the curriculum.
“You understand that you are going to get exposed to Christianity throughout the day,” he said, “or just by saying, ‘Hey, you know, Jesus loves you.’”
That’s just our point, of course. If the preschool teaches religion “throughout the day,” it shouldn’t be supported with taxpayer dollars. Ministries should be financed by those who believe their tenets, not taxpayers who may or may not.
We look forward to hearing from state officials about what they plan to do about this situation.