The Arkansas Department of Human Services announced a new proposed rule Tuesday opposing the use of religious activities at state-funded preschools.
Though proponents believe that the new rule will keep some faith-based preschools in line with the Constitution, specifically the separation of church and state, one state lawmaker says that it may be doing the opposite.
"One of my main vocal points is that no matter what religion it is, in my case its Christianity, this new rule will take away the parents right to choose where they want to send their child," Rep. Justin Harris, R-West Fork, told The Christian Post during a phone interview.
Harris owns Growing God's Kingdom, a preschool in West Fork that received $534,600 in state funding for the current year from the Arkansas Better Chance program, a service benefiting low-income families, according to the Arkansas News Bureau.
Last November, the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State accused the preschool of using state funding to promote religion, violating the First Amendment, and asked the state to investigate.
DHS sent an inspector to the school and discovered religious art on the walls, Bible study and Bible song sessions in the activity schedules, and a "Pledge of Allegiance to the Christian Flag" and "Pledge to the Bible" on the walls.
Upon review, DHS clarified their regulations and issued a proposed rule that stated: "All ABC instruction and instruction materials must be secular and neutral with respect to religion and no religious activity may occur during any ABC day."
DHS Spokeswoman Amy Webb also revealed that unannounced inspections would occur at schools whenever the department received a complaint about a particular school.
The proposed rule will be open for a 30-day public comment period next month and the state Board of Education, which funds the ABC program will make the final approval with appropriate changes. A legislative committee will also review the rule as well.
Harris told CP that the proposed law is purportedly in effect now at his preschool, although no legislative oversight had taken place as of yet – a fact he found disconcerting.
For now, the preschool will move the Bible story portion to the end of the day, after ABC hours (seven hours beginning with the first ABC activity of the day), a change the organization already "allotted for" while still keeping what was on their walls. The proposed rule allowed the display of religious materials.
"We had all already conceded to the point that we would tell the Bible story and that we would do it after hours but the thing that is so alarming to my wife and I as a business owner and as a citizen is that we can't pray during the day anymore, during the hours that we're open for the ABC program, we can't sing Christian songs, and neither can our staff," Harris shared. "But in the curriculum that the state of Arkansas offers now, we have to have all genres of music which we have and now they're taking out Christian music, one genre."
"We're not wanting to break the law," Harris affirmed, "but we're just wanting the law to be fair and not be against any factions of religion. We want to look at school choice but now these parents have no choice."
In the small town of West Fork, God's Growing Kingdom, a business Harris and his wife started out of their own garage in 2003, represented one of the two ABC schools parents could choose to have their children attend.
"This is a state benefit for low-income children and in our small town you have two choices: a secular preschool...or a faith-based preschool," he explained. "And over and over again people from all walks of life came to us."
Harris clarified that his preschool was not "indoctrinating" the children. "I think that's where a lot of the misconception is taking place."
"We just do the Bible story, but we don't talk about the particulars of the way, [i.e. what is sin, what does it mean to be born again, how Jesus died for our sins, etc.]," he said. "I teach that to my own children at home."
Harris felt that what he implemented at the preschool did not go against the law.
"There was no law in place when we set up this corporation in 2003. We took no state funds at that point. But the larger we got, we applied for this grant and the only thing they asked us to do is have the parents sign a waiver that wasn't a must but a suggestion. We followed it because we believe that parents could choose to opt out if they wanted."
"No laws were broken, no Constitution was violated," he reiterated. "A lot of people think we're teaching a certain way of life but what we're doing is taking stories out of the Bible and converting them to make it more at a child-friendly level. We're not indoctrinating these children."
Harris is currently receiving counsel from the Alliance Defense Fund about the new changes.
"They're looking over at the new rules, proposed changes for when we go through the legislative oversight and public comment period."
"I offered to meet with the legal counsel of DHS and have ADF help them, but they refuse to do so," he also mentioned.
Despite Harris' opinions and other opposing views from the public, DHS spokeswoman Amy Webb asserts that the new proposed rule is "very fair." "It requires that taxpayer funding not be used to pay for religious instruction. That's what the Constitution calls for," she told ANB.
The spokeswoman also validated the quality of pre-K education that faith-based programs like Growing God's Kingdom offered.
Growing God's Kingdom currently has 33 employees and 68 children attending the school Monday thru Friday.