You may remember a story from November 2011 about Justin Harris, the Arkansas legislator who pilfered a million in state funds to indoctrinate children into Christianity. (LINK) If you don’t, here’s the synopsis. Representative Harris owns a publicly funded day care named “Growing God’s Kingdom.” To call it anything but a Christian indoctrination camp would be unconscionable. The mission statement accurately reflects the steady day-to-day diet of prayers, Bible readings, kiddie sermons, and Christian singing that has been taking place since day one.
The Arkansas Department of Human Services has issued a new set of guidelines, in large part due to outcry over Harris’ misuse of public funds. (LINK) On the surface, they appear to put an end to the public funding or religious prosetylizing. However, on closer examination, they may in fact do more than before to promote the spread of Christianity
To begin with, there is the potential for an after-hours loophole:
ABC program standards apply to everything that happens during the 7-hour ABC day, including recess, lunch, and rest, and therefore apply to any religious activities that take place during the day. Even if that was not the case, any religious activity would have to be arranged in a way that could not directly or indirectly pressure a child to participate. A policy allowing a child to opt out of a religious activity does not solve the problem, because a child who decided not to participate in prayer time would be conspicuous (especially if there are no other scheduled events) and would be subject to both adult and peer pressures. (LINK)
Already, Rep. Harris has made it clear that he has no intention of obeying the spirit of the policy. According to one source, plans are in the works for using the facility after hours. (LINK)
While this approach may prove legal — or, at the least, not explicitly illegal — it certainly does not honor the intent of the rule, as children would simply be indoctrinated at 3:01 PM instead of 2:59 PM, and still at the behest of publicly funded employees. The language against peer pressure seems strong, but in a legal sense, it is relatively vague. At the least, it will require a new round of maneuvers should a new complaint be raised. If Harris decides to implement a “no-pressure” after school policy, it will be up to the DHS or the courts to prove him wrong.
It also appears that there is wiggle room with regard to the posting of religious materials.
Government aid must be available to both religious and non-religious beneficiaries on a nondiscriminatory basis,and the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses forbid conditioning the receipt of public aid on the removal of religious materials from private premises. In practice, this means that government programs exist in churches where the display of religious materials is the norm. However, the Establishment Clause prohibits using such religious material or symbols for religious instruction or observance during as a part of any government-funded program, including ABC.
While employees may not preach to children during business hours, the guidelines specifically allow religious posters and other decorations. Again, it is difficult to understand how this exemption creates a realistic separation of church and state. If an employee need only nod suggestively in the direction of a great big poster outlining the plan of salvation, the effect of indoctrination is the same.
The practical implications of these guidelines remains to be seen. Another religious daycare, owned by Sen. Johnny Key, also a hyper-religious Arkansas legislator, has indicated willingness to comply with the guidelines, and this is encouraging. However, secular activists might well be left feeling as if they’ve won a hollow victory. Christian activists are fond of tromping out charges of persecution from a vast left wing, godless conspiracy. It’s hard to imagine that the atmosphere will be anything approaching “religiously neutral” when a whole cast of Christian employees spend their days gesturing silently towards the hundred and fifty posters they can’t mention.
In fact, this ruling may actually produce new Christian zealots. Nothing promotes activism more than feeling repressed and oppressed. Since the state has allowed the open display of religion but not open discussion, this feels more like a win for Christians. Their new non-message will be a constant daily reminder of the battle they lost. Impressionable five year old children will ask their parents why their teachers can’t talk about the posters. Their parents are under no gag rules, and will gladly speak of the repressive atheist government that wants to prevent them from worshiping Jesus. They’ll tell their children to spend all their time in school praying the prayers on the walls, reading the Bible verses, and singing songs to themselves. And a new generation of the “oppressed majority” will be trained.
Without a clear separation — a complete and clear separation — between church and state, there is no victory for secularists. Arkansas residents are still paying for religious indoctrination. Instead of a clearly religious day care or a clearly secular one, they now have a clearly religious one that is required to communicate in whispers and sideward glances. Arkansas secularists are paying their hard earned money to a Christian organization that now has all the Christianity plus an added helping of perceived oppression to really get the righteous juices flowing.
So… I guess… better luck next time, Arkansas.