Legislators debate religion in publicly financed pre-school

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Rep. Justin Harris speaking before the Joint Committee on Education - CHEREE FRANCO
  • Cheree Franco
  • Rep. Justin Harris speaking before the Joint Committee on Education

Rep. Justin Harris speaking before the Joint Committee on Education
  • Cheree Franco
  • Rep. Justin Harris speaking before the Joint Committee on Education

At a legislative Education Committee meeting today, state representatives and legal counsel for both the Departments of Education and Human Services discussed changes to rules governing preschool programs which receive funding through the Department of Human Services' Arkansas Better Chance (ABC) program.

Currently, 296 preschools receive ABC funds, and 27 of those preschools have “some religious affiliation” (according to Jeremy Lasiter, attorney for the Department of Education) or are “faith-based” (how Rep. Justin Harris of West Fork described Growing with God, the ABC preschool that he and his wife run). A private group objected to Biblical instruction in Harris' pre-school and one operated by Sen. Johnny Key in Mountain Home, an objection that led in turn to new rules. Of those 27 schools, Christianity is the only represented religion.

Rep. Randy Stewart and Sen. Joyce Elliot argued for separation of church and state in state-financed activities, while Reps. Tommy Wren and Tim Summers expressed some sympathy for religion in the publicly financed facilities. The changes to the rules propose that all ABC instruction shall be religiously neutral; religious activity can’t take place within the seven hour school day; state funds can’t support religious activity even after-hours; and ABC schools must maintain separate bank accounts for public and private funds. A motion to disapprove the rule wasn't considered for lack of votes. In theory, the legislature only has "review" authority over such rules, but state agencies typically give great deference to legislative wishes. Here, however, a lawsuit is all but a certainty if legislators like Harris continue to insist on Bible instruction in state-financed operations.

ABC preschool venues are privately owned and include churches. State counsel agrees that it’s okay for religious posters to remain on the walls during instructional hours, but these posters are not to be discussed, even if children ask about them. Whether or not to allow religious-themed Christmas carols and art was the subject of a vigorous debate that lasted at least an hour, and the issue of prayer in school was also raised repeatedly. Private prayer is fine, prayer organized or authorized by a school employee is taboo.

Personal anecdotes came up frequently. Wren brought up his son, who attends an ABC school, and his wife, who often eats lunch with their son. “If my wife wanted to say a pray with him, that’s okay…but not with a friend’s child or any other child?...There are children that go to that ABC program with him that go to church with us. So I’m sure that if Ann goes and says a prayer with Mason, one of those kids in his Sunday school class is going to bow his head as well," he said.

State counsel said that other students could participate voluntarily, but that a parent couldn’t make a public announcement about prayer. This didn’t suit Elliot, who worried about the parent, as an authority figure at the table, making children uncomfortable with the idea of opting out if that adult and the kids around them were praying. “And what about parents who may be religious, but want to emphasize the separation of church and state?” she said.

Committee chair Rep. Johnnie Roebuck pointed out that, by law, preschool kids are labeled “impressionable,” while older students, high school and college kids, are not.

Atheism got worked over. A few legislators wondered if these rules applied to atheism — would atheism be taught in schools, if Christianity is off limits? “Teaching there is no God is not religiously neutral,” one of the state counselors responded. The pro-sectarian camp seemed to think that the moral implications of religious teaching justified it’s presence in ABC schools. “Is there any evidence that religious teaching has damaged children? Don’t you agree that today’s youth need all the moral help and discipline they can get?” Summers said.

The Christmas carol debate was a tougher nut and seemed to perplex even counsel. Roebuck thought that religious carols are allowed in public school if there is a “balance” (presumably with secular carols rather than celebration of other religions’ holidays, since it seemed understood that the holidays of other sects don’t usually warrant school-wide celebration). But one legislator, a former music coordinator for a Baptist church, politely played devil’s advocate. She noted that there are plenty of secular songs and that, “if someone came in and tried to teach our Christian children something other than this, we would be very upset.”

Sen. Jimmy Jeffress said that in decades of teaching, he’d never had a single complaint about Christian holiday songs, but what if he had programmed a song about Allah?

“We’re supposed to teach classic, rock, clean rap, even Middle Eastern, and Christian [music], and now Christian has to be taken out?” Harris said, perhaps failing to recognize that in his list of genres, only one is not religiously neutral.

When the discussion finally veered (briefly) from carols, Lacey Stephine a lawyer affiliated with the Christian organization Allied Defense Fund, spoke on behalf of Harris. She objected to a proposed change that would subject grant applications from preschools that label themselves sectarian to a more thorough review process than those of secular schools. The application will be the same for all schools, but after the Department of Education has reviewed the applications, those from sectarian schools will be forwarded to the Department of Human Services for further review — a revision that Stephine claims is not religiously neutral because it separates sectarian schools from the general applicant pool.

Donna Schillinger, whose child attends an ABC preschool called His Little Lambs in Clarksville said that she chose the school because it was run by a member of her church and that, “That name guaranteed me that…my child was going be taught by somebody with the same values as me.” She emphasized that she sent her child there by choice — something Harris also argued. But Stewart said that in his district and others, low-income parents don’t have a choice — there may only be one ABC preschool. Schillinger was convinced that all of the legislators’ references to how things are done in “public schools” aren’t applicable to ABC schools, since they are only partially publicly funded, and that “these limitations to our religious freedom” (her term) shouldn’t apply to students whose parents pay tuition.

The meeting concluded on a note of complaint.. Harris is upset that his pre-school, because of “an outside group” — Americans United for Separation of Church and State — is now under inspection for the first time. “In 2006, when we applied for this grant, we were told that all we had to do was have parents sign a paper [opting out of religious instruction for their child]…we have complied by moving Biblical curriculum after hours, but now we can’t pray with students or sing religious songs?” he said. The answer for Harris is that in 2006, when Mike Huckabee was governor, the state didn't pay much attention to the U.S. Constitution.

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