Thursday, November 3, 2011

Complaint: Religion taught in lawmaker's tax-funded daycare UPDATE

Posted By on Thu, Nov 3, 2011 at 3:04 PM

PRAISE BE TO GOD: But the money actually came from taxpayers for Justin Harris church school.
  • PRAISE BE TO GOD: But the money actually came from taxpayers for Justin Harris' church school.

GROWING GODS KINGDOM: Justin Harris does it with tax dollars.
  • GROWING GOD'S KINGDOM: Justin Harris does it with tax dollars.
We've written before about state Rep. Justin Harris, the West Fork Republican who operates what he has called a "church preschool," Growing God's Kingdom.

The late muckraking blog, Blue Hog Report, highlighted the hypocrisy in Harris' operation. A state budget hawk, Harris gets almost $900,000 a year in state and federal money to operate the daycare. A stout opponent of government support for immigrants, he also serves children of immigrant laborers that likely include undocumented visitors. He also tried to amend the FOI to protect himself from snooping into public records concerning his enterprise. A scourge of double-dippers, he's lined his pockets with a state paycheck, hefty state expenses and the government grant money.

Oddly, enough, nobody, apart from Blue Hog, ever raised much noise about the more obvious problem — giving state and federal tax dollars to what, by its name alone, appears to be a religious operation. In looking back at my own clips, I see I once put a question on on this to the state Human Services Department and Julie Munsell, no longer spokesman. She never responded.

DHS will have to respond now.

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State has written both DHS and the state Education Department to express concerns about more than $500,000 in Arkansas Better Chance for School Success money going to Growing God's Kingdom. Based on documents it has discovered through Freedom of Information requests, Americans United says it believes the payment of public funds is unconstitutional. It asks for an investigation and, if necessary, remedial action.

Here's a copy of the Americans United letter, (link corrected) with attached public documents indicating the religious flavor of Harris' operation.

I've sought comments from Harris, DHS and the state Education Department. Few responses so far, in part because I may have received news of the letter before the targeted agencies. I did reach Harris' wife, Marsha, who helps operate the daycare. She referred questions to her husband. She wouldn't comment whether the school still requires daily "Bible time" for its children as plans on file with the state show.

A spokesman for Human Services said the agency had not received the complaint yet. Said Amy Webb:

If DHS receives a complaint regarding religious activities at a pre-school, the Department must conduct a prompt investigation. In general, the Division instructs programs who receive state pre-k funding that funding cannot be used to pay for religious materials/curriculum.

The Education Department said it also had not yet received the letter, but added in response to a general question about religious practices in schools receiving the money:

We act as a conduit for funding but regulation of those entities is left largely up to DHS.

UPDATE: Harris still hasn't responded to me, but if I read between the lines on his Facebook post, he's going to take the position that he has a First Amendment right to teach religion on public tax dollars. A long line of cases says he's wrong, IF that's what this means.

Dear Supporters, As you may or may not know our business, GGK, has come under attack by the national org., United for Seperation of Church and State. They have filed a complaint that we are violating the Constitution by teaching the love of Jesus and recieving funds from the ABCSS Block Grant. I strongly believe we will be victorious. We believe strongly in the Freedom of Speech, as they do not.... Marsha and I are strong and are unwaivering in what we do. We provide a loving and safe place for children to receive the best education offered. I will continue to represent the people of my district and the people of Arkansas. Let's get people back to work! Your Representative, Justin Harris

The state, by the way, has added that it DOES NOT BELIEVE teachers it pays may hold a Bible class during the school day.

There's much to be checked. The complaint includes copies of school documents with overt religious messaging including an employee handbook that says employees are expected to "share the love of Jesus" with children and "teach them the word of God" so that they may spread it to others. Parents are told not to send children to school with items bearing emblems of Pokemon, Scooby Doo, Harry Potter, Digimon, Teletubbies, Power Puff Girls and others that may be associated with "witches, goblins, ghost or evil content." The school's Facebook page is loaded with religious content. Example:

We are thankful to be a part of God's plan, in helping so many families and their children. We are so thankful to provide a loving, safe, secure environment where children are given a foundation for their future. We provide education, Bible teaching along with love, and an ability for families to continue to work. We will never be shamed for the ministry that God has allowed us to be a part of.

Americans United cites case law that says tax money can't go to direct support of religion or to secular programs that support religious activities. Government money must be used only for secular purposes, the letter says. The letter also says public records show no evidence that the state has done the review required by state law to make sure no money is spent on daycare programs unconstitutionally — that is, for religious purposes.

What the documents do show, Americans United said, is evidence of religious entanglement. (And this case naturally makes you wonder how closely the state has looked at the other places that receive this money.) Read on:

* Teachers contracts specify that teachers must "share the love of Jesus" with children and bulletin boards must be faith based.

* The handbook for parents says the school will instill a love of Jesus in preparing children for kindergarten.

* The school's initial curriculum plan in 2005 called explicitly for a "Christian curriculum" and while it's unclear if that plan is still in place, the most recent plan on file, for 2009-10, still provides for "Bible time."

Americans United says the school should change its procedures to comply with the law or the grant should be terminated.

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