ABC About-Face In Arkansas

State Officials Issue New Regs Barring Taxpayer-Funded Religion In Preschools, After AU Complaint

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 Nov. 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.S. Constitution.

Specifically, the rules would require that all ABC instruction and instructional materials must be secular and forbid religious activity during the ABC day. Schools that offer religious activities would have to maintain documentation that parents and guardians have been informed in writing that no religious activity will be subsidized by public funds. ABC funding recipients would also have to annually certify compliance with the rules and agree to unannounced public inspection to monitor compliance.

Although the proposed regulations must still undergo a public comment period, a legislative review and approval from the state Board of Education, the initial reaction from Americans United is positive.

“The new regulations do a good job of stating and explaining most of the legal requirements,” Smith told Church & State. “There appears to be a good system in place to police the active proselytizing during the Arkansas Better Chance Program day.”

Smith does, however, have some concerns about the DHS action.

“The new regulations shouldn’t allow uncovered religious iconography during the ABC day,” he said. “There also does not appear to be an effective method for ensuring that ABC funds are not used to pay for religious activity – simply prohibiting the religious activity during the ABC day doesn’t speak to, for example, whether an employee whose full salary is paid with ABC funds can suddenly become a preacher one minute after the ‘official day’ expires.”

 In addition, Smith said “there is a disclaimer required by the regulations that we think is somewhat unclear, especially given what the regulations currently allow. It gives the impression that there will be no religion in the program, when in fact parents could be sending kids into an environment with religious iconography plastered all over the walls and where, if they don’t get to the school at the precise moment the program ends, their children can still be proselytized.”

The fight over this issue may not be over. Harris has sought out the help of the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a right-wing legal organization founded by TV and radio preachers. He also called on his colleagues in the Arkansas legislature to reject the new rules.

Harris also said he doesn’t agree with the DHS interpretation of the First Amendment.

“There is no separation from church and state,” he said, according to the Arkansas News. “It’s not freedom from religion; it’s freedom of religion.”

Smith completely rejected Harris’ claims.

“This is a political talking point fed to him by ADF and other mouthpieces trying to push a political agenda,” he said. “It implies that church-state separation strives to eliminate religion, which is wrong. Church-state separation strives to make it so that the government does not favor one religion over others. It seeks to level the playing field. 

“Harris knows this very well,” Smith continued, “but his statement isn’t meant to address actual church-state separation arguments. It’s code for ‘I should have the right to use the authority of the government to push my majority-supported faith on everyone else.’”

Harris should not get taxpayer funds to advance a sectarian agenda, and Americans United will continue to fight Harris and his allies to ensure that he doesn’t succeed.