by Max Brantley
Belatedly, the Arkansas Board of Education today approved without dissent a proposed rule that would prevent use of state money to pay for religion in the Arkansas Better Chance program that provides tax money to pre-schools.
Two Republican legislators, state Rep. Justin Harris and state Sen. Johnny Key, operate for-profit programs with tax money that have included Bible instruction and other religious trappings. Key has said his program has ended use of Bible verses. Harris has tried to say his religious indoctrination occurs outside the school day, though his facility is almost wholly funded — building and staff — by tax money.
The Bible training prompted a complaint from Americans United for Separation of Church and State and led to the new rulemaking. It remains to be seen if the rule satisfies Americans United or — more accurately — if recalcitrant people like Harris insist on finding a way to take tax money and keep infusing programs with religion.
Americans United had already objected to rules drafted by the state Department of Human Services for not sufficiently closing the day to religious activities in publicly funded schools. The Education Department subsequently held a public hearing on the rules and made some changes. They now indicate that ABC money can't be used in any way to support religion. Here's a summary, too, of comments made on the rules and the Department response. Those intent on insinuating religion into their programs are, I'd guess, unlikely to be dissuaded.
I sought a comment from Harris. He said he'd get back to me after reviewing changes made by the Education Department in the original proposal. His Facebook post indicates hope that the legislature will override agency administrative rules, something that exceeds its authority technically, but which can happen in the review process:
Rule changes were adopted this morning, against Religious Instruction, from the Board of Ed. It now will go through the Legislature. This is our last line of defense.