by Max Brantley
Americans United for the Separation for Church and State has formally responded to rules proposed by the Arkansas Department of Human Services on religious practices in pre-schools operated with tax money from the Arkansas Better Chance program.
In short, I told you so. Here's the full response in a letter to the state.
The state rules seemed to me to open the door to unlimited state-funded religious practice as long as it occurred outside a prescribed seven-hour period of required instruction. Americans United says that's at clear variance with federal case law. In a letter prepared by its legal department, the organization said:
In fact, government funds must not directly support religious services, instruction or programming at any time, not just for the arbitrarily selected duration of the programs.
Daycares operated by Republican state Rep. Justin Harris in West Fork and Republican Sen. Johnny Key in Mountain Home have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years under the ABC program. Both have included religious activities throught the school day, despite a state law that prohibits this. Proposed rules were developed to enforce the statute after Americans United filed a formal complaint to the state, though it should have been well aware of the practices because of many news accounts about them. Records show that ABC money, plus other tax payments such as school nutrition money, make up the largest source of revenue for the schools. The money goes not just to teachers, but for rent, utilities and other costs incurred before and after the 7-hour prescribed ABC pre-school day.
Americans United said this problem could be fixed by a rule clarifying that ABC money could not be used to support religious activity at any time and that separate accounts be established so that costs could be clearly tracked to private money. (This presumes, however, that sufficient private money exists for those costs. In Harris' case, for certain, it appears unlikely, based on audit reports. He gets a small amount of outside money.)
Americans United also disputes, with multiple court citations, the state's argument that it cannot prevent religious drawings and symbols from being displayed in classrooms. Americans United notes that the state regulates the physical attributes of classrooms in many ways and adds, "... the government can no more allow ABC grantees to use religious iconography as part of the ABC program than it can allow them to conduct Bible lessons or sing religious songs."
Simple fix, said Americans United. Cover the drawings up during the ABC day.
Americans United also objected that a proposed disclaimer for parents was misleading because it suggests that religious activity may occur during ABC programming if it is not financed with public funds.
"...government-funded programs must not include religious activities and the courts have repeatedly rejected arguments that religious components can be included in state-sponsored programs if statistics or accouting are used to allocate the cost of those components to private funding."
I've asked for a state response. DHS hadn't seen it yet and, though it wrote the proposal, deferred to the Education Department, source of ABC money. Shameful buckpassing by the state continues. There's a public hearing March 6.