by Max Brantley
There's an unsettling indication that state officials are buying the alibi being served by the school operators that they may receive state money so long as it only supports the 7.5 hours of state-paid instruction and any religious costs are funded privately.
Money is fungible. It is impossible to separate the religious instruction from a staff, building, lunches, materials and other costs nearly wholly funded by public dollars. If this interpretation is allowed to stand — and the state Department of Human Services is apparently winking and nodding at it — there's nothing to prevent any public school from using the same ruse. Credit to Senator Key for at least admitting the reality:
Key said the children at his schools pray in the morning and before meals and receive one Bible lesson per week. The lesson is incorporated into the ABC program, he said.
“This month, because it’s November and because of Thanksgiving, they’re talking about being thankful,” he said. “Our (ABC) coordinator said they’ll incorporate a Bible verse about being thankful.”
Is that using taxpayer dollars to fund religious instruction?
“I won’t say that it is not,” Key said, but he added that DHS’ Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education “has looked at our program and has said that it’s within the guidelines.”
I expect deeper inspection will find Bible lessons throughout the hundreds of pre-schools that receive $100 million a year in public dollars. Who can blame Key? Why not teach Bible if state officials allow it? It's shameful stewardship on DHS' part.
Read again the rich list of court precedents cited by Americans United. It is not only direct public spending on religious activities that is unconstitutional. It is also use of government funds on secular activities that support the religious activities — like the four walls that surround the students, the utility bills, the teacher pay, computers, books and more.
If legislators and DHS hold fast to the belief that pre-school operators can teach Bible to children whose tuition is wholly subsidized by the state, we could have the making of a landmark court case.
UPDATE: A lawyer with Americans United said it had been informed of the additional reporting this morning and will expand its review of state spending on religious instruction to include Key's school.