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WATCHING GOD’S KINGDOM: Rep.’s preschool investigated for mixing religion, state-funding

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November 10, 2011 by wcobserver

By Jeff Winkler

WEST FORK – Rep. Justin Harris’ kingdom is under attack as the Department of Human Services investigates whether his preschool center uses state funds to promote religion – a possible violation of guidelines and laws.

On Nov. 1, the Washington D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a complaint with the DHS against Growing God’s Kingdom Preschool, run by Harris and his wife Marsha in West Fork.

“We urge you to investigate the implementation of this grant thoroughly,” read the letter accompanying the complaint. “[A]nd, if Growing God’s Kingdom is unwilling to alter its implantation of the grant in a manner that complies with the law, the grant should be terminated.”

Rep. Harris said the complaint itself was “baseless,” according to the Northwest Arkansas Times, and he told the Observer that the “constitution specifically says that no state religion can be enforced upon us.”

One national scholar on religious freedom, however, did not offer such a positive assessment of the program.

“From the description in the complaint, this preschool is pervasively sectarian,” said Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Washington D.C. and Director of the Religious Freedom Education Project. “…  Unless a school is willing to separate its religious message from the teaching and activities provided to the kids through government funding, it should not receive tax dollars to carry out its ministry.”

Regardless of the religious aspects, Rep. Harris said the center complies with all rules and regulations, and vowed to continue doing his work.

“We are not doing anything wrong [and] we do not plan to change anything,” Rep. Harris said. “We’re going to continue what we’re doing.”

Informed by media inquires last week, the DHS said it would respond promptly and indeed an area inspector for the agency surveyed the preschool on Friday, Nov. 4, in direct response to the complaint that, as of this publishing, has yet to be officially received by the agency. Based on a eight-paragraph fact-finding report by a local licensing supervisor filed on Monday, Nov. 8, DHS said it will begin doing “legal research to determine whether the school needs better guideline about not spending taxpayer money for religious purposes.”

According to the DHS report notes, GGK has posters depicting a “Pledge of Allegiance to the Christian Flag” and a “Pledge to the Bible.” As for any suggestion that he remove the lines of scripture painted on the preschool’s​​ wall, Harris is unshakeable, saying “it’s a private building, so no I would not. ​”​

Apart from the name itself, Growing God’s Kingdom is expressly Christian in several mission statements and asks teachers – all of who must be ABC Trained and CPR certified – to “share the love of Jesus with these children [and] Teach them the word of God …”

Teachers receive between $28,000 and $36,000 in state-provided salaries, while Marsha Harris earns a $14,000 administrative salary. After winning office in 2010, Harris said he stopped accepting a $9,000 annual salary.

Rep. Harris, however, said the center does not discriminate against anyone when hiring and parents sign a waiver acknowledging that children will be exposed to religious themes. Harris said the center has an optional 10-minute Bible Study time during the day, the material for which he and his wife paid for themselves. Any parent expressing discomfort over the teachings is allowed to remove their child from religious activities said Harris.

“We’ve definitely had parents that questioned it and we’ve been happy to answer their questions on it,” Harris said. “We have Jehovah’s Witnesses, we have Catholics, we have all denominations.”

Critics of the center’s overtly Christian themes have taken the issue “out of context,” said Harris, who has sought assistance of the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund. The organization addresses issues of “religious freedom” according to its website, although the group was unavailable for comment.

As news of Harris’ preschool makes the rounds of state-wide media, other daycares are receiving renewed attention, too — Republican Rep. Johnny Key (Mountain Home) runs a preschool called Noah’s Ark. DHS said it may soon review how it monitors schools to ensure they comply with rules separating state funding with religious instruction.

Of the 298 schools receiving Arkansas Better Chance grants – about a dozen of which are clearly religious in nature — only a small percentage are audited every year or are on a “high priority auditing list,” said DHS spokeswoman Webb. “Basically a list of places that have had a history of non-compliance with regulations.”

Webb said GGK was not on that list and she was not aware of any previous complaints made against the center.

“We get yearly audits by a private auditor but they also send people very regularly especially with how big we are, just to look over the program,” Rep. Harris told the Observer. “This is normal.”

Rep. Harris said critics lambasting him over the religious nature of his daycare have taken the issue “out of context.”

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