by Max Brantley
Is the state of Arkansas ever going to do anything about Bible instruction in state-funded preschools operated by two Republican legislators — Rep. Justin Harris of West Fork and Sen. Johnny Key of Mountain Home? I mentioned several days ago that I got the runaround on this question to the Department of Human Services, which sends the schools hundreds of thousands in tax dollars that is used to instruct kids in Bible, sing hymns and other religious activities along with usual daycare. (Harris gets at least $875,000 from various tax sources. Key gets at least $1.1 million.) Much study is required, I was told. Conferring must be done. Other states must be reviewed. The attorney general must be consulted (though that office disclaims involvement despite both DHS and Harris invoking its name.) I noticed that John Brummett got the same runaround when he inquired for a column he published on the subject today.
I also called Americans United for Church and State, which had complained formally about the practice at Harris' Growing God's Kingdom school in West Fork. The staff lawyer was temperate. He said it was awaiting a response from the state and jumping to no conclusions. He added, however, that the group had concerns about similar practices at other schools (I presumed he meant Key's), but declined to discuss it. His group, like the ACLU, prefers to work out agreements with public agencies to halt improper practices rather than suing. Sometimes public agencies have hard heads, particularly when it comes to taking money away from Republican lawmakers, some of them, like Key, quite powerful. Religious coercion is a powerful force in Arkansas, witness the recent outrage in Paragould where angry "Christians," amid some hints of even violence against critical newspaper types, forced the reposting of a Nativity Scene honoring Christ's birth in a public school classroom. Christian majority rules, by damn.
Cat's out of the bag on Key, however. The Northwest Arkansas division (pay wall) of the Democrat-Gazette talked to another person at Americans United and he told the newspaper the group will be writing a formal letter about Key's pre-school, asking for investigation by DHS and the state Education Department, which has also been running from its responsibility on this issue. Specifically, the Noah's Ark and Open Arms schools have prayers at two meals a day and a daily Bible lesson. School director Shannon Key readily acknowledged the religious practices. She said it was one reason people chose her taxpayer-financed school. She said she'd stop the practices if asked by the state. "Nobody wants a ruckus," she told the newspaper.
This is better than Harris' aggressive violation of the Constitution, but it's still passive aggressive. This doesn't require a lot of study. If people want church schools, they can attend them and find a way to pay for them with something other than taxpayer money. Schools receiving taxpayer money shouldn't hold prayer exercises — Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Wiccan or Hindu. When caught, they should quit.