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Praying for dollars

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There is no record of a non-Christian state legislator ever receiving state and federal tax dollars to run a school openly promoting atheism. Or Buddhism, for that matter. Or Islam, or any other of the off-brand beliefs. If ever such a thing happens, we'll begin to pay attention to the Religious Right's complaints, voiced loudly at a recent Washington convention, that Christians are persecuted in this country.

In the meantime, we have the case of state Rep. Justin Harris (R-West Fork), who rakes in almost a million dollars a year in state and federal money for operating a "Christian" day-care center, in bold violation of the Constitutional guarantee of separation of church and state.

We have, too, Harris's colleague, Sen. Johnny Key (R-Mountain Home), whose pre-school operation receives almost $200,000 a year in tax dollars to provide Christian religious education. A couple more legislators in this line of work and there'll be enough for a standing Committee on Religion and Flimflam.

Are there not state officials charged with keeping boodlers' hands out of taxpayers' pockets? There are, but they appear to have been dozing. (At least, that's the most charitable explanation for their inactivity.) How else could they avoid concern about public money going to a pre-school called "Growing God's Kingdom"?

In any event, it was a private, non-government agency, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, that blew the whistle on the Harris and Key schemes. Americans United has called on the state Department of Human Services and the state Education Department to investigate the dispensation of public money to religious groups. It appears the bureaucratic response will be painfully slow and, we expect, excusive of the legislators and the DHS and Education Department employees who abetted them.

So criminal prosecution is probably too much to hope for. (It would be easy for Harris, for example, to convince investigators that he didn't understand the law. His public responses to the accusations against him suggest that he doesn't understand spelling very well.)

Restitution would be a reasonable request, and public apology for the legislators' offenses, with promises to sin no more. The United States Constitution is not to be mocked. At the very least, the disbursement of public money to these church facilities should be ended immediately. If the agencies won't do it on their own, surely Governor Beebe can give commands. And somebody — perhaps a more conscientious legislator than Harris or Key — might want to ask Attorney General Dustin McDaniel for a legal opinion on this public financing of church institutions. It shouldn't take long to write that opinion.

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