by Max Brantley
I'm sorry to say that Republican state Rep. Justin Harris has cut off my access to his Facebook page (after I asked him there about his animus to Scooby-Doo) and he won't return calls or e-mail messages. But coverage elsewhere gives a clear enough picture of activities in his Growing God's Kingdom preschool in West Fork, a self-described church school that incorporates the Bible in instruction.
CLARIFICATION: Rep. Harris informs me that I was not blocked. "I took down the page for a little time. I will not be consumed by this and I have three boys and possibly three adopted girls on the way!"
Among other coverage today, the Northwest Arkansas Times' Larry Henry reported in a script that could have been written by Harris. With Harris as his source, he reported that the school is alllowed to teach Bible if instructional materials are not paid with public money. That's Harris' belief and Americans United for Separation of Church and State will have plenty of court precedent to argue to the contrary. Harris' purchase of Biblical flash cards doesn't overcome the fact that teachers, building, utility and other costs are paid with tax dollars. Nor is Harris cleansed by gettiing signed waivers from parents that religion will be taught in the school. If so, every public school district in Bibleland could pull a similar stunt (and many would). Nor does it matter that Harris bought Bible lesson audio tapes with his own money. Nor does it matter that he paid for materials used for the Biblical teaching posted on the walls in the school, seen by a state inspector who visited Friday. Samson and Delilah were the subject of discussion in school Friday.
The Northwest Arkansas story, again quoting Harris, seriously underreports how much money Harris and his wife have been paid by the school in years past — almost $60,000 a year at one time according to public records. It also fails to report several hundred thousand dollars in support from ARKids, the federal nutrition program and other sources. The Harrises also own the school building and so taxpayers are paying the mortgage, insurance and other costs on their family asset. Blue Arkansas ran all this down a while back.
The state Department of Human Services says Harris' school has received about $1 million in early childhood education grants since the school started in 2003. Of the 168 current students, 110 are fully paid for by tax money. The school simply doesn't exist in this form without tax dollars. I don't think there's a court in the land that will say his "waiver" or his payment for flash cards allows the establishment of religion with public money. Nor does the fact that Harris stopped taking pay from the school, though his wife remains on the payroll.
Harris said he'd change the curriculum if objections were raised. I'll believe that when I see it. He's reached out to a Christian legal defense fund for assistance. The Alliance Defense Fund is a product of the unholy trinity of right-wing religious extremists — James Dobson, Donald Wildmon and James Kennedy. The "homosexual agenda" is a favorite bugaboo. The Alliance was widely derided for its lack of evidence or legal case in attempting to defend the California measure outlawing same-sex marriage. It has been successful in arguing for equal access in schools to religious clubs, but that's a good deal short of teaching Bible with tax dollars.
(Looking at Harris' campaign website, you gotta love that his "achievements" include unsuccessful sponsorship of a requirement that college students be legal residents to qualify for in-state tuition rates. As we well know, he has some students receiving tax dollar support who are almost certain to be part of families in the country "illegally." And that, by the way, is OK by me. Just leave the Bible out of it.)