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Arkansas state representative accused of using taxpayer money to fund religious preschool

Arkansas state representative accused of using taxpayer money to fund religious preschool

Arkansas state representative Justin Harris runs a preschool called "Growing God's Kingdom."  He's being investigated by the Arkansas Department of Human Services for violating church and state–the preschool receives state grants approved by the Arkansas Department of Human Services, and the Harris' teach religion in their preschool.

Harris was quick to say that parents can opt out of the religious education if they like.  UALR Public Radio reports:

Representative Harris says his daycare provides a short religious lesson daily, but parents can opt out; so, he says, that isn’t a violation of the first amendment.

"I think the Constitution — and why this wonderful country was started — was in order for us to have our freedom, freedom from a government that tells us how to worship and who to worship and I think that's why that was put in the constitution," Harris said. "I don't think it was put in to say that government can't intermingle with Christian values."

Harris said he has never tried to impose his beliefs on daycare patrons who have different beliefs or lifestyles from his own.

"Never in our mindsets has it crossed us that we need to convert them to believe the way we believe. We're misconstrued because of the name of our pre-school: Growing God's Kingdom."

Americans United for Separation of Church and State requested the investigation of the preschool.  Harris said he "felt disappointed" about the investigation.  He quit receiving pay when he became State Representative, and his wife is the main administrator, according to The Republic:

On Tuesday, Americans United sent a letter to the Human Services Department and the state Department of Education, which must approve the grants.

Webb said the Arkansas Better Chance grants funded 110 slots this year for Growing God's Kingdom pupils.

Harris said the school has 168 pupils. Parents of about 20 pay full tuition, which ranges from $135 to $140 per week, depending on the child's age. Other children attend Growing God's Kingdom on tuition vouchers from the department.

Harris said the preschool has 33 employees and his wife makes $12,000 annually as administrator.

Harris said he made $9,000 per year as curriculum coordinator but stopped working at the school as anything other than a volunteer after 2009.

As a state legislator, Harris earns $15,000 per year.

"That's enough," he said.

The Republic also noted the school received $534,000.00 in Arkansas Better Chance grants for the current school year.

Growing God's Kingdom said it was using a Christian curriculum plan, according to an application for Arkansas Better Chance funds in 2005.

A "daily plan" that was also attached included 25 minutes in the morning for "Bible time (verses, songs, stories, prayer)," according to the Americans United letter.

Harris said "Bible time" is optional. Parents are given a form informing them that their children will be taught about the Bible if the parents sign it. If they don't, or a child decides that he doesn't want to take part in Bible time, "that child will be given another activity," Harris said. He doesn't know of any family at the school that has turned down Biblical teachings, he said.

Harris said the preschool has a box that contains about 150 Bible stories. Teachers adapt those stories to the age level of the children, he said.

"It's like reading Winnie the Pooh," Harris said. "It's the same thing. I don't see, 'Son, Winnie the Pooh is real and you gotta believe this.' Just like we don't say, 'Jonah was eaten by a whale.'"

Joe Conn, a spokesman for Americans United, said, "The problem here is that the taxpayers should not have to support religious instruction.

The Arkansas Department of Human Services is currently reviewing the investigation request.


About Dakota O'Leary

Dakota O'Leary is a freethinker, and often sassy, scholar of theology and literature. She got her Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Theology from the State University of New York College at Buffalo, and her Master of Arts degree in Theology and Literature from Antioch University-Midwest. She is a contributing writer focusing on eschatology, biblical prophecy, and general religious news. Dakota is a co-host of the God Discussion radio show, offering insight to the news stories of the week. We like to call her "our in-house Biblical prophecy expert" as her articles on eschatology have received over 200,000 views on God Discussion.
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