Two Arkansas lawmakers who also run state-funded preschools say they teach religion in those schools, but that they are not violating any laws by doing so.
State Representative Justin Harris, a Republican, said he was “surprised” when an official came to his preschool Growing God’s Kingdom to count the number of Scripture posters on the school’s walls, among other inspections.
Harris’ school is now the target of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, who claim state funds are being unlawfully used to promote religious beliefs. The group asked for an investigation to be conducted at the preschool.
Spokesman for Americans United, Rob Boston, spoke on FM 89.1 in Arkansas this weekend.
"I think that the people who believe in that religion, who belong to that religion, should be the one to pay for it, and that's really the crux of the matter here,” Boston said.
Americans United claims Growing God’s Kingdom has been given over $1 million in state funds since 2005.
The group contends that Harris’ preschool violates the First Amendment rights of the school’s students. Funds secured from the Arkansas Better Chance program – funded by taxpayers with the intention of improving schools – cannot “result in a violation of the United States Constitution, Amendment One.”
“Saying that we’re violating the Constitution is just totally wrong,” Harris told Arkansas News Bureau. “We also have freedom of speech.”
Harris openly admits his preschool students are given the option to participate in daily Bible lessons and religious activities. He says there’s nothing wrong with his system.
Harris says teachers will often tell students “Jesus loves you” throughout the day.
Aside from complaints of misappropriated funds, critics say preschool students aren’t equipped to opt out of religious activities and may feel left out if their parents opt out for them.
"Never in our mindsets has it crossed us that we need to convert them to believe the way we believe,” Harris said. “We're misconstrued because of the name of our pre-school: Growing God's Kingdom."
Harris’ preschool isn’t the only one under attack. Fellow Arkansas legislator Johnny Key’s Noah’s Ark Preschool says it practices religion in the school.
Key, however, says that the $97,200 the school receives annually only covers seven and a half hours of the day. The rest is privately funded – and that is when religious activities are conducted.
Critics claim that the accounting done by schools such as Key’s shouldn’t provide a loophole for them to continue religious teaching with state money.
Over $102 million are given to Arkansas schools each year via the ABC program. Some of these schools have overtly religious names or are run by churches.
The investigation has yielded no action as of yet.