January 25, 2012 by wcobserver
WEST FORK –Rep. Justine Harris may have to consider altering some of his preschool’s practices if recently proposed rules are approved by the State Board of Education.
Following complaints filed by the D.C.-based Americans United that Harris and his wife’s partially state-funded preschool, Growing God’s Kingdom, violates state and federal laws, the Arkansas Department of Human Services proposed new rules that would clarify what actions constitute an illegal use of tax-payer dollars for religious instruction.
Religious instruction includes songs and prayer. And as noted by the ADHS’ evaluator back in Novemeber, Growing God’s Kingdom had featured religious-themed posters on the wall, as well as Bible Study held after regular school hours.
As Harris did when the story first broke on Nov. 1, the West Fork resident defended the school’s practices, saying that religious instruction does not coincide with classroom time and that the proposed oversight runs against his freedom of religion. Harris, who recently announced his intent to run for the redistricted seat covering both Washington and Madison County, raised concerns of his own when interviewed by the Northwest Arkansas Times:
[Harris] objects to being unable to pray with parents or others who come to the school needing counseling, sometimes after traumatic incidents at home.
“That’s just us. We minister to people,” the first-term Republican said Monday. “Now I’m going to have to question it if I pray with parent.”
Harris seems to be keeping his word from a November interview when he said “we are not doing anything wrong [and] we do not plan to change anything.” In fact, the state rep has sought the legal assistance of the Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based religious-freedom advocacy group run primarily by Christian legal experts.
“Everyone in Arkansas needs to be awakened to their religious freedom,” [Harris] told the NWAT. “They need to say, ‘Am I going to stand with it or against it?'”
At Growing God’s Kingdom, which has about 168 pre-K students, teachers receive between $28,000 and $36,000 in state-provided salaries, while Harris’ wife, Marsha, earns a $14,000 administrative salary. After winning office in 2010, Harris said he stopped accepting a $9,000 annual salary. Harris said the school receives yearly audits and has never had a problem. DHS spokeswoman Amy Webb told the Observer in November that Growing God’s Kingdom is not on the departments list of state-funded school in need of serious supervision and that the complaint filed by Americans United was the first significant complaint against the preschool.
The Department of Education will review the ADHS’ proposed rule clarifications during its February meeting, according to the NWAT. What follows is a possible 30-day comment period, followed more bureaucratic and committee approval.