Last year I blogged about a “State of Perversion” in Arkansas. The news broke with a sensational expose by the Arkansas Times on our local state representative Justin Harris. Now a year from his outing, this seems an appropriate time to check on how far we’ve come. (Or haven’t.)
Here, in part, is what I wrote:
“Justin Harris is serving his third term in the Arkansas Legislature where he has introduced conservative measures ranging from abortion restriction to denying funding to the state’s department of human services under the campaign promise to reduce government spending. He and his wife own and operate a preschool in his legislative district town of West Fork, a largely rural constituency with a high percentage of fundamentalist church followers. Alongside the alphabet and fingerpainting, Mr. Harris’ school teaches religion.
- UPDATE: Since the scandal broke, Mr. Harris announced he would not run for another term. However, he refused to resign, meaning he continues to serve at the state capitol until January 2017. Even more disgusting has been the utter and abject failure of any Republican legislator to criticize Mr. Harris.
“In 2012, Harris found himself on the hot seat after a formal complaint was filed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Seems Mr. No Government Funding had his hand in the public till by obtaining grant funding for his preschool. Over a million dollars had flowed into his coffers, courtesy of a state agency charged with providing tax monies in support of preschools that addressed the needs of ‘underserved’ youth…
“Mr. Harris mounted a vigorous and outraged defense of his right to all that money. He brought in a team of attorneys from Arizona who specialized in defending schools who want to teach Jesus on the public dime. Subsequently, the ABC program promulgated a set of rules specifically addressing the issue of religious instruction. It is unknown whether the ‘solution’ was put forth by the Arizona attorneys, modeled on rules operating in other states, or sprang from a singular Arkansas process, but the novel approach defines an ‘ABC day’ as a set number of hours of purely secular instruction. Whether religious instruction occurs before the ABC day commences or after it ends would not be the state’s concern.
“Since then, Mr. Harris has expanded his operation and state funding approaches a million dollars annually. His students arrive as early as 7:30 a.m. and leave as late as 6 p.m. The ABC day begins at 9 and lasts until 3. Before and after, it’s all about Jesus.
- UPDATE: An exchange of information with Americans United for Separation of Church and State reveals that under current federal guidelines, states can use tax dollars in this way. Apparently there’s no compelling interest in establishing a viability test where a school would have to prove that its religious instruction could exist separately without the use of tax dollars. In the case of the Harris school, if tax dollars didn’t support the rent, utilities, and salaries for operations, the school would cease to exist. Repeated questioning of DHS money managers produced zero interest in developing or implementing such a test.
- Likewise, we can hardly expect much interest for reform among current members of Congress who quake in fear of the Religious Right. Closing a loophole that recruits so many young minds to their way of thinking is simply not to be considered even if that loophole stands in clear violation of the U. S. Constitution.
“Soon after the flap over school funding, the Harrises…decided to adopt little three girls whose dysfunctional family had lost custody. The girls were fairly well adjusted in a foster home, but the natural mother allegedly made a personal plea to Justin Harris. This arguably admirable effort left many to question Harris’ quick use of the girls in a family portrait promoting his re-election campaign (a violation of adoption policy), the nearly $30,000 tax break that came with the adoption, and the monthly stipend allotted to Harris in the form of state support. Clearly, the adoption wasn’t all about benevolence.
“Firmly fixated on the adoption idea, the Harrises refused to listen to DHS field agents who reported that the girls would not be suitable in the Harris household. With all the arrogance befitting a person who believed God directed his acts, Harris apparently used his elected office to pressure DHS to approve the adoption. Local caseworkers opposed to the adoption mysteriously changed their recommendation after their boss advocated on the Harris’ behalf. That Justin Harris held a powerful position in the legislative committee which controlled DHS funding seems never to have been examined as a possible contributor to this department head’s advocacy, which resulted in a local juvenile court judge granting the adoption. Unfortunately, because the case involves adoption, DHS has not released any information.”
- UPDATE: Unfortunately, nothing is known to have changed regarding inappropriate legislator influence over DHS activities. But the incident does reveal the ugly underbelly of an organized evangelical movement to adopt children. The objective is two-fold: provide a viable argument against abortion rights for women and brainwash vulnerable youngsters to extremist religious views.
“Within a year, the Harrises decided to ‘rehome’ the girls to another family. By early 2014, one of the girls had been raped by her new ‘father,’ Eric Cameron Francis. Later that year, Francis would be convicted of multiple counts of child abuse and is currently serving time. As it turns out, Francis had been an employee at the Harris preschool and his wife was good friends with Mrs. Harris. Not surprisingly, Harris chose to stay quiet about his role in placing the victim in the Francis home until a reporter from the Arkansas Times connected the dots. The story went public in March 2015.
“When the adoption/rehoming scandal broke, Harris held a press conference as reported by the Arkansas Times. He presented himself and his family as the damaged party.
“…He said one of the girls — the implication was the middle sister — had to be medicated to stop hurting her sister, and that he was advised by therapists to treat her RAD [Reactive Attachment Disorder] by removing toys and other belongings from her room.
- UPDATE: Harris never publicly accepted responsibility for the harm inflicted on these girls. While his initial reaction seemed to portray him and his wife as the aggrieved parties, his last public statement on the issue included a comment to the effect that he felt sad about what happened to the girls…as if he personally had nothing to do with it.
- ABC News produced a close-up on the Harris adoption scandal. The report failed to address the ignored caseworker input and accepted at face value the excuse of Reactive Attachment Disorder. In response, a statement from a collective of mental health professionals criticized the ABC report and refuted RAD as a legitimate diagnosis.
- On a more promising note, however, the girls are reportedly well adjusted in their new post-Harris adoptive home. And newly-elected Governor Asa Hutchinson saw fit to accept the resignation of the head of DHS and has hired a new person to fill this slot. He has also instigated a complete revamping of the department.
“Harris said he sought DHS assistance at that time but was given none. He said he thought he’d found the ‘perfect solution’ in handing the girls over to…Eric Cameron Francis. Eric Francis is serving 40 years in prison on charges of raping the child.”
- UPDATE: Justin Harris has continued to hire questionable employees to care for the vulnerable young children attending his preschool. A school bus driver failed to notice that a child remained on the bus. The child was not discovered until early afternoon. Fortunately, the temperature remained fairly mild that day and the van was parked in the shade. The child suffered no ill effects. Nevertheless, the driver was prosecuted. The Harrises fired the driver immediately upon discovery of the incident and accepted no responsibility even though the school failed to abide by its own protocols in checking attendance which would have discovered the missing child.
- Additionally, word has leaked out that another male employee was fired in December 2015 for inappropriate contact with the students. Seems the Harrises might need to employ better screening methods for prospective employees other than learning whether the candidate regularly attends church.
“Within a month of the revelation that Arkansas DHS had no rule or restriction on the rehoming of adopted children, the state legislature passed a law making rehoming a felony. Harris voted for the bill, in essence making himself a retroactive felon. He resigned from the chairmanship of the public health committee, but failed to yield his legislative seat. He has also refused to accept any responsibility for the little girl’s sexual abuse. At the peak of this fiasco, his school billboard proclaimed that ‘God Himself will fight for you. Just stay calm.’”
- UPDATE: Happily for all of us in South Washington County who must drive past the Harris pre-school on a daily basis, the school’s outside billboard has remained empty of Godly exhortations since the beginning of the 2015-16 school year, with the exception of a brief period during Christmas.
“Throughout the intense scrutiny on Harris and his failure as an adoptive parent, a considerable body of information has come to light about ongoing religious activities at his preschool. Although random spot inspections by the state theoretically rule out the chance of illegal religious activity during the ‘ABC day,’ reports from former teachers and others allege that children who misbehave are routinely taken to the office where they are prayed over to ‘cast out demons…’
- UPDATE: There’s been no official (or unofficial) statement from any elected leader or state agency on the use of prayer to cast demons out of misbehaving youngsters. Why would it be so difficult to issue a blanket policy statement about the negative impact on young minds of promoting the belief that demons might inhabit a person or that such demons, rather than oneself, is the party responsible for misbehavior?
“…While firmly denying funding to DHS based on his campaign promise to reduce government spending, Mr. Harris (as legislator) fought for government handouts to fund his religious school in spite of the fact that he knew he was breaking the law by teaching religion in a tax-supported program. As an elected person who held himself up as an example of Christian righteousness, he should have been the first person to recognize he was crossing the line between church and state as delineated in the U. S. Constitution. Instead, assuming he understood the thrust of the Founding Fathers’ intent, he no doubt privately justified his behavior with his belief that God willed it…
“This kind of simplistic medieval thinking lies behind the ability of political handlers to capture votes from the evangelical demographic. The compelling argument is that demons rule the ‘other’ party, that gay marriage, abortion, and other private activities are the proper province of political action, and only by voting for Mr. Righteous can we satisfy the will of God.
“There are many features of modern life that scare the hell out of those who simply cannot understand science or other changes increasingly widespread in the world. Our technology and culture have evolved faster than our mental or physical state. Everything is too fast and too complicated. It’s only been a hundred years since picking peas and saddling a horse served as the requisite skill set to get through life.
- UPDATE: Which brings us to the candidacy of Donald Trump. Although no one would claim that Trump is a model of evangelical righteousness, he embodies another characteristic evidently more important to the religious right: the ability to dominate. Of almost equal importance is Trump’s wealth, which evangelicals view as God’s gift to a righteous man.
- Just as the religious right’s concept of a Supreme Being embodies power and arrogance, so does Trump. By reflecting back the anger, fear, and blind hatred toward those unlike themselves, Trump approaches the brink of gaining the Republican nomination for president. The collusion of willful ignorance and the result of years of religious education (versus education based on logic and fact) now stands before us.
One final encouraging note: Justin and Marsha Harris’ West Fork home is up for sale. It may be asking too much, but one can hope that at least this one preschool operation will be taken over by an educator, not another evangelist, and that the children there will learn rational thought along with their ABCs.
Finally, we’re pleased to note that Mr. Harris earned the top ‘dick’ award for 2015.
Coming soon…an update on the Duggar family’s equally outrageous 2015.
6 thoughts on “A Year Later — Justin Harris”
I used to be baffled and dismayed by Christians who would excuse and even support this kind of man. Now, they have elected Donald Trump, I know that “Christian” is now just another political label for most and has little to do with really following the teachings of a Jesus. Is it time for true followers of Jesus to rename themselves and separate from the heresy of the “Christian Right Political Party”?
I agree completely Elise. So far disconnected from what the teachings meant.
Is the preschool still operating and what has become of Mr. Harris? This story floored me when it originally broke and I can’t believe how it amazingly just got swept under the rug with hardly any repercussions.
I share your disgust with the lack of censure. His fellow Republicans failed to issue even a statement condemning his actions. However, there was a law passed –which he voted for!– making “rehoming” a crime. He served out his legislative term then quietly slipped into the woodwork. I don’t have any information about his whereabouts or whether he and his wife still own the preschool. I suspect they still do although they evidently moved away from West Fork. I can’t find any recent info. Thanks for your comments!
Hi, I wanted to provide an update for any future commenters (as this is the only place I’ve found with any recent discussion on him):
As of March 2019, Justin and Marsha (who now live in Springdale) still own the preschool and are quite involved with it, but have hired a new director. The school still accepts ABC funding and fellow Republican Judge Joseph Wood has come in a few times to read to the kids.
Thank you Sara! The idea of indoctrinating young children with religion will be difficult to overcome, unfortunately. And I’m fairly certain that state agencies in charge of monitoring their “school” hours hardly bother to check whether those hours are free from religious teachings as required by law. The state has never replied to my questions about feasibility, i.e. whether the religious school part could exist without tax dollar funding for the school part. I’m tempted to file an FOI request for records showing when/if inspections have been completed and the findings. Please let us know if you discover anything further!