January 2012 Church & State | Featured

When Justin Harris became a member of the Arkansas House of Representatives, he took an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution, but it seems he hasn’t spent much time reading it.

Harris (R-West Fork) is the owner of Growing God’s Kingdom, a preschool in West Fork that requires its staff members to “share the love of Jesus” with students. The school operates with an evangelical Christian curriculum that includes a “Bible time” for verses, stories and prayer.

According to the school’s handbook, parents are assured 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.”

Minus some grammatical issues, there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, in and of itself. The problem is that Growing God’s Kingdom has received over $1 million in state funds since 2005, including $534,000 for the 2010-2011 school year. The taxpayer dollars came to the school through the Arkansas Better Chance for School Success program (ABC), which provided tuition for 110 of the 168 students at the school this year. The parents of only about 20 students pay full tuition, which is $135-$140 per week.

Harris told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that his wife works at the school as an administrator, and that he was employed there himself until 2009. Now he said he works only as a volunteer.

The U.S. and Arkansas constitutions generally prohibit government support for religious organizations. Article II, Sec. 24 of the Arkansas Constitution, for example, 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.” The courts have also held that the U.S. Constitution prohibits most forms of direct aid to religious schools.

So when it came to the attention of Americans United for Separation of Church and State that Harris’ school received substantial public support, the AU Legal Department sent a letter Nov. 1 to the Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS) and the Arkansas Department of Education asking for an investigation and remedial action.

“The Constitution’s Establishment Clause prohibits the provision of public aid for religious activity, such as worship or religious instruction,” the AU letter insisted. “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,”

The letter, signed by AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser and Staff Attorney Ian Smith, went on to list several examples of evidence that Growing God’s Kingdom is, in fact, a sectarian school. This included passages from the school handbook, which in addition to those previously mentioned, also contains a passage regarding dress code. The school does not allow clothing to be worn by students if it depicts “characters that may be affiliated with witches, goblins, ghost [sic], or evil content.”

In his defense, Harris told the 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.’”

Harris told the Democrat-Gazette that “Bible time” is not mandatory at his school and that parents are provided a form to let them know that their children will receive Bible instruction if the parents sign it. If the parents don’t sign the form, or a child simply doesn’t want to participate in Bible time, “that child will be given another activity,” Harris said. He is unaware of any family at the school that has declined Biblical lessons, he said.

Harris also said the preschool has a box of Bible stories and that teachers adapt the stories depending on the age of the children, according to the Democrat-Gazette.

“It’s like reading Winnie the Pooh,” Harris said. “It’s the same thing. I don’t say, ‘Son, Winnie the Pooh is real and you gotta believe this.’ Just like we don’t say, ‘Jonah was eaten by a whale.’”

AU’s Smith didn’t buy Harris’ excuses.

“The argument that children may opt out of Bible study is frivolous and irrelevant,” Smith told Church & State. “The violation is the funding of religious activity; allowing children to opt out of that activity doesn’t change the fact that the state is still paying for it in violation of the Constitution.”

Thanks to AU’s letter, DHS has investigated Growing God’s Kingdom. DHS inspector Kim Chapman visited the school and found ample evidence of religious instruction in the school curriculum, according to a report in the Southwest (Ark.) Times Record.

A story in the News provided details on Chapman’s findings. It said Chapman’s report cited “scriptural pictures and decorations” hanging on the wall in the school foyer; hallway bulletin boards with religious themes; posters with a “Pledge of Allegiance to the Christian Flag” and “Pledge to the Bible” on the walls of one classroom; and daily schedules in the classrooms listing times for Bible study and Bible song.

Chapman even observed children singing “Jesus Loves Me” as they came in from playing outside, according to the News.

As a result of the investigation, a report has been sent to the Arkansas attorney general’s office for an opinion, according to a Nov. 18 report in the Arkansas Times. Harris said on his Facebook page that he is “not sure what the opinion can be, seeing that there are no regulations in Arkansas about teaching Jesus in private schools that receive some funding from the state. More to come, I have a feeling this could be a long drawn out process.”

Although AU has gotten the ball rolling in Arkansas, work remains to be done. DHS spokeswoman Amy Webb said DHS is supposed to review all applications from religious organizations for ABC funds to make sure there are no constitutional issues, but it has not provided its employees with guidelines for identifying constitutional violations, according to the Times Record.

“We really focus on childhood outcomes and the quality of care provided,” Webb said. “Our ABC checklist talks all about training and staff development, the childhood screenings and that sort of thing, but it doesn’t have anything specific that says, ‘Review XYZ about religion or the First Amendment,’” she said.

Thanks to AU’s complaint, however, Webb said she expects that will change.

“Our attorneys are reviewing case law and doing the research necessary to help form some additional, more specific guidelines for our staff, for the ABC staff,” Webb said.

Smith said he is “cautiously optimistic” that Arkansas will stop providing grants to students who attend Growing God’s Kingdom.

“They immediately sent out an investigator, who confirmed the conditions we described in our letter and added in a few more details we didn’t know about,” Smith said. “They then undertook a review that has culminated in a question to the attorney general. I’m hopeful that this will all result in a much more comprehensive set of guidelines and regulations for ABC funds that will prohibit those funds from being used for religious instruction.”

Smith also had some chastising words for the Arkansas DHS.

“The Arkansas Department of Human Services should be ashamed that this situation arose in the first place,” Smith said, “because the authorizing law specifically requires them to perform the kind of review that we asked them to undertake. If they had done what they were supposed to do, this wouldn’t have happened, and the only excuse they could muster up is that nobody had ever complained about it before.

“That’s not good enough,” he continued, “and it’s a perfect example of the lack-of-oversight problem with government programs that fund the activities of religious organizations.”