Church-state disputes arise frequently in Arkansas because we are a state dominated by conservative Christians who believe in evangelism.
The latest on the agenda: Americans United for Separation for Church and State last week wrote state Human Services Department and Education Department officials with concerns about the amount of religion present in Growing God's Kingdom, a West Fork pre-school run by Republican state Rep. Justin Harris.
The school's bulletin boards carry Bible quotes. A Bible lesson is taught daily. Parents and teachers are informed that spreading God's word is a mission of the school.
The state provides more than $500,000 a year to pay the tuition for some 110 students. Harris actually gets a great deal more public money, nearly $900,000 a year counting federal nutrition and other aid.
Harris contends he's gotten the state OK to offer religion, so long as it's outside the 7.5 hours care that he must provide for each publicly paid child and so long as he pays for supplies. Americans United says he's wrong.
A landmark decision in the 8th U.S. Circuit, which covers Arkansas, said a prison ministry in Iowa was unconstitutional because prison expenditures, though for indirect support like housing and equipment, amounted to religious establishment. Harris couldn't operate his school — in a building his family owns and whose expenses are paid with public money — without taxpayer support. Yet, until now, the state has clearly left the impression that if a school teaches Bible outside the grant-required 7.5 hours daily the taxpayer subsidy of building and staff is irrelevant.
The issue is bigger than Justin Harris. Stephens Media reported Monday that state Sen. Johnny Key also gets almost $200,000 in public money a year in support of his Noah's Ark Preschool in Mountain Home, which also provides Bible lessons and daily prayers.
Nearly 300 agencies — many of them with religious roots — receive $100 million a year in public Arkansas Better Chance funding to provide preschool for poor children. Who knows how many teach Bible?
Harris seems determined to be a martyr, so overt his proselytizing. Key, perhaps the most measured Republican in the legislature, is believable when he says the state had signed off.
But the state has had no written guidelines that provide a constitutional path to religious instruction. It has had no legal analysis. What's worse, the state law that authorizes the funding of preschool programs specifically requires an audit of religious recipients to be sure they don't run afoul of the Constitution. There's no record that such an audit has ever been performed. Americans United notes the schools ARE regularly inspected. Surely an inspector at West Fork, while checking the sanitary conditions, happened to glimpse the Bible quotes on the bulletin board or, as last Friday, heard a teacher talking about Samson and Delilah.
A Human Services spokesman says that the issue is now getting a closer look and that it will eventually "issue some guidance." She insists, however, that grantees were always told they "cannot teach a religious curriculum and use state funds to teach and buy material." But they do.
Key spoke honestly when questioned by Stephens Media on whether his school's religious instruction — admittedly mild stuff like being thankful at Thanksgiving — was being funded by tax dollars. "I won't say that it is not," said Key. But he insisted the state approved. That is the real problem. Arkansas government has provided public support for faith-based institutions in exactly the religiously permissive way the proselytizers like George W. Bush had hoped.
Americans United will win few friends in Arkansas for pushing back. But it should win in court.