Pre-Schools Restricted from Using State Money to Teach Religion

The Arkansas Department of Education ruled this week that pre-schools receiving public tax money are no longer allowed to teach religion.

Schools participating in the Arkansas Better Chance (ABC) program can’t use the money for religious instruction or worship occurring during school hours.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a national group based in Washington D.C., voiced concerns about three Northwest Arkansas pre-schools last year, promoting state inspections.

The pre-schools in question are Growing God’s Kingdom in West Fork, as well as two pre-schools in Mountain Home Noah’s Ark Preschool and Open Arms Living Center.

Both are run by Republican state legislators. State Rep. Justin Harris and state Sen. Johnny Key, respectively, who were previously teaching religion in their pre-schools, with almost all of their funding coming from ABC money.  

Harris said Friday he plans to keep teaching religion, even if this new rule becomes law in August. He said he’ll just shift that portion of the day to after normal school hours.

That’s because families who choose to send their children to the school understand that religion is taught.

“It’s not anything major. We’re singing songs, and sharing stories and teaching them how to pray,” said Harris.

But University of Arkansas communications professor Steven Smith said that’s still too much. He says there should be a separation of church and state.

“He has every right to operate a religious pre-school that any other American citizen has. What he doesn’t have is the right to get tax dollar money to operate a religious pre-school,” said Smith.

Smith said it comes down to whether or not Harris wants to receive state money. If he does, then Smith said he needs to stop teaching religion in the classroom.

“He can operate with religious instruction if he wants. I mean we have religious schools , religious colleges, religious public schools…but they don’t get state funding. They don’t get our tax payer dollars,” said Smith.

Harris said that would put low-income families attending his school at a severe disadvantage.

“[State Legislators] are going to have to look and just say, ‘You know what? If you’re rich you can go to a Christian pre-school. If you’re not, then too bad,” said Harris, explaining that low-income families would have to then be re-located to public schools.

Harris is running against Democratic opponent Wolf Grulky in the November election.

The Legislative Council will vote on whether the rule becomes law sometime in August. You can attend and voice your opinion that day in Little Rock. An exact date has not been set.

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