For decades, the religious right has gained access to tax dollars by filling a niche in the education system. In addressing an ‘at risk’ population among children, these religious activists have made great strides toward the use of tax dollars for religious instruction.
It’s a clever end-run around the law. In Arkansas until 2012, a quietly growing swarm of such preschools illegally utilized millions of tax dollars for programs that began each day with prayer and Bible study. (Which they have never been required to pay back.) Classroom activities included coloring images of Biblical scenes, singing hymns, and the occasional time-out at the principal’s office where the recalcitrant child might be prayed over to cast out the demons causing his/her unruly behavior.
Tipped off by thoughtful journalists, Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) threatened a lawsuit against the state. Specifically cited in the complaint was the Growing God’s Kingdom preschool at West Fork. The Arkansas Times, arguably the state’s only non-rightwing media, reported that “According to the school’s handbook, parents are assured that staff members will ‘strive too [sic] ensure that your child feels the love of Jesus Christ while preparing them for Kindergarten.’ The preschoolers, it continues, will be taught ‘the word of God’ so that they can ‘spread the word of God to others.’”
Outrageous not only because the preschool blatantly advertised its religious intent in its name and literature without the state blinking an eye before handing over tax dollars, its owner/operator Justin Harris also served as an elected representative in the state’s legislature. And he wasn’t the only elected official sworn to uphold the Constitution who grabbed illegal tax dollars hand over fist. Similar preschools operated under the leadership of Johnny Key, also a legislator and – incredibly – in 2015 designated by the Republican governor Asa Hutchinson as head of the Department of Education, even though Hutchinson had to massage the state’s rules about qualifications for the department head because Key didn’t meet them.
Specifically targeted by religious preschools in order to boost their standing for ever greater grant funding, potential ‘students’ are rounded up from problematic environments.
- The ABC Program serves educationally deprived children, ages birth through 5 years, excluding a kindergarten program. The Arkansas Better Chance for School Success Program serves children ages 3 and 4 years from families with gross income not exceeding 200% of the federal poverty level.
- Eligible children for the ABC program shall have at least one of the following characteristics: § Family with gross income not exceeding exceeding 200% of FPL § Has a demonstrable developmental delay as identified through screening § Parents without a high school diploma or GED § Eligible for services under IDEA § Low birth weight (below 5 pounds, 9 ounces) § Income eligible for Title I programs § Parent is under 18 years of age at child’s birth § Limited English Proficiency § Immediate family member has a history of substance abuse/addiction § Parent has history of abuse of neglect Or is a victim of abuse or neglect
- An age-eligible child who falls into one of the following categories shall be exempt from family income requirements: § Foster child § Child with an incarcerated parent § Child in the custody of/living with a family member other than mother or father § Child with immediate family member arrested for or convicted of drug-related offenses § Child with a parent activated for overseas military duty
Further enticement for struggling parents is that ABC funded programs provide free child care and pick-up/delivery services for children. What low income parent would not rush to place their child in such a program whether or not they want their child indoctrinated in fundamentalist Christian religion?
State employees at the Department of Human Services, which oversees this particular realm of education and tax dollars and in charge of the Arkansas Better Chance (ABC) program, could not account for how the money was spent by these schools, citing chaotic bookkeeping methods. The state did not require any particular accounting method. The state then or now does not know whether tax dollars granted to preschools and other educational programs serving ‘at risk’ children actually are used for that purpose, only requiring that grants be kept in a separate bank account.
Despite the wimpy crackdown in 2012, random yet infrequent inspections by state enforcement personnel lack the ability to determine whether prayers, hymn singing, and exorcising of demons might yet continue, stopping only the moment an inspector walks through the door.
In the aftermath of unwanted scrutiny by AU, the state allowed these powerful religious entities to fabricate an imaginary line between religious instruction and the so-called ‘ABC Day,’ a block of seven hours where secular education supposedly occurs without any religious indoctrination. While delineating these requirements in a new section of is program codes (see Section 23 at the DHS website), the restrictions on how tax dollars might be used fail to include rent, insurance, utilities, and other overhead expenses of the overall operation. Children bused to the school before the ABC day begins or who remain after are immersed in religious instruction, a convenient sleight of hand since parents’ work hours rarely coincide with ABC instruction hours.
As specifically stated in Section 23.04.4 of ABC Rules:
- No religious activity may occur during any ABC day and no ABC funds may be used to support religious services, instruction or programming at any time.
Without a viability test by which religious preschools must prove their religious instruction could continue without tax dollars, there is no method to determine if ABC funds are used to support religion. Such a viability test would have to show that without tax dollar grants, these schools generate enough income from other sources to keep the rent paid and the lights on. The state has made no effort to devise such a test.
Now let’s take a sharp turn to a similar situation on the other side of the coin. As the newly installed majority Republican Congress rubs its hands in glee over its sudden ascension to total control over the nation’s lawmaking, no issue is more eagerly addressed than the longstanding thorn in the abortion debate—Planned Parenthood. Early calls for defunding this nonprofit organization cite exactly the same argument as those opposed to tax dollars for religious education.
Recently questioned by CNN’s reporter Jake Tapper, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan explained the need to stop tax dollars from supporting Planned Parenthood.
Well, there is a long-standing principle that we’ve all believed in. And—by the way, this is for pro-choice, pro-life people—that we don’t want to commit taxpayer funding for abortion. And, Planned Parenthood is the largest abortion provider.
So, we don’t want to effectively commit taxpayer money to an organization providing abortions. But, we want to make sure that people get their coverage. That’s why there’s no conflict by making sure that these dollars go to federal community health centers, which provide these services and have a vast larger network than these Planned Parenthood clinics, which—which are surrounded by a lot of controversy.
And, we don’t want to commit people’s taxpayer dollars to effectively funding something that they believe is morally unconscionable. Not everybody believes that and I understand that. But, that’s a long-standing principle that we’ve had in this country that we want to maintain.
Tapper countered Ryan’s remarks by citing the Hyde Amendment which ensures that federal funding isn’t paying for abortion, Tapper asked “of course, taxpayers don’t fund abortions, right now, right?”
“Right,” Ryan fumbled. “But, they get a lot of money and—and you know, money is fungible and it effectively floats these organizations which then use other money. You know, money is fungible.”
Ah. Money is fungible.
Of course it’s beyond Ryan’s comprehension that anyone would consider early childhood religious indoctrination to be “morally unconscionable.”
If Ryan and his cabal of rightwing religionists pursue their effort to kill Planned Parenthood (and thereby leave millions of women without reproductive health care), their argument goes against them in the wholesale religious perversion of our nation’s youth.
Religionists cite the helpless condition of a fetus and the ruthless medical procedures which may be used to terminate its life all while they discount the agonized decision-making women engage in before choosing such a path. Yet what is more helpless than a barely verbal child relinquished to a daily dose of brainwashing?
More to the point central to any federal legislation, what has longer and more consequential ramifications for the nation? While those terminated in the womb are removed from the overall population, the clear agenda for youthful brainwashing is to “Grow God’s Kingdom.”
Let’s not kid ourselves. The Religious Right will not stop until they have forced the United States of America to fit their definition of a Christian nation.
Compare the two programs: one provides financial assistance for medical care to women old enough to bear children and therefore old enough for reasoned decision-making. The other takes children not old enough to reason or speak for themselves and forces them to undergo religious indoctrination.
Imagine, if you will, religious tax-funded preschools which teach Islam.
Note: The red herring in Ryan’s argument centers on his theory that community clinics could provide adequate replacement services for those now available through Planned Parenthood. It would take significant expansion and investment for such clinics to equal the services offered by PP to over five million people per year.