September 2012 Church & State | People & Events

Under new rules being promulgated by the Arkansas Department of Education, pre-schools that receive tax funding will no longer be permitted to teach religion.

The change comes after Americans United raised concerns last year about public funding of pre-schools that were saturated in religion.

One of those schools, Growing God’s Kingdom in West Fork, has received over $1 million in state funds since 2005 – even though the school has a clear 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.”

After learning about this school and others, Americans United attorneys sent a letter to the Arkansas Department of Human Services and the Arkansas Department of Education asking for an investigation and remedial action.

Arkansas tax dollars, the letter said, should not be used to pay for religion.

Officials in the state began looking into the matter. In July the state Department of Education announced new rules designed to curb public funding of religious instruction.

Growing God’s Kingdom is run by Justin Harris, a member of the Ark­ansas House of Representatives. Harris said he would keep religious activities in the school but shift them until the end of normal hours.

Harris told KFSM-TV that the religious activities are “not anything major.”

“We’re singing songs and sharing stories and teaching them to pray,” Harris said.

But Steven Smith, a communications professor at the University of Arkansas, said those activities can’t be funded by the taxpayer.

“He has every right to operate a religious pre-school that any other American citizen has,” Smith said. “What he doesn’t have is the right to get tax dollar money to operate a religious pre-school.”

Most of the public support flowed to the pre-schools through the Ark­ansas Better Chance program, which targets children under the age of 5 who live in low-income households.