Legal. Immoral.

Artists-impressions-of-Lady-Justice,_(statue_on_the_Old_Bailey,_London)For better or worse, religious affiliation remains an important thread in the social fabric of these United States. ‘Better,’ most would say. Political candidates campaign on their religious credentials. Religious leaders are sought out as advisers in business and community affairs.

A large segment of the population assumes that religion provides important moral guidelines for life. The theory is that without religion, there would be no morality.

But what if the opposite were true? What if religion gets in the way of moral behavior?

The assumption has been that highly religious people such as our locally infamous Justin and Marsha Harris are highly moral. They go to church. They ‘witness’ their faith in public. Mr. Harris has used his Christian standing in his successful campaigns for public office. Their religious mission is to ‘grow God’s kingdom’ at their pre-school by indoctrinating children with religious teachings.

In the last year, events have unfolded that cause many to question the morality of the Harrises. Believing that God guided their steps, about four years ago they adopted two little girls. Within a relatively short time, the girls became such as problem that the Harrises gave them away. The six-year-old was subsequently raped by her new ‘father.’ In March 2015, the story became public.

In addressing that horrible outcome, Justin Harris belatedly stated he felt sorry for the little girls’ experience. Aside from that, he has blamed the state’s social services agency for not helping more. That’s it.

The irony is that the Harrises felt free to dispose of their newly adopted young daughters and then, in the public fallout after their ‘rehoming’ came to light, agreed that such a practice should be defined as a felony.

Is such an act wrong only if it breaks a law? Did the act of rehoming change somehow once the law was passed, so that when Justin and Marsha rehomed these girls, it wasn’t wrong?

The moral reality is that if it’s a felony now, it was a felony when it happened.

Unfortunately, this is often how religion works in people’s minds. An act is immoral, wrong, bad only when someone has already written a rule or law about it. Does the religious person have license to ignore (or never bother to understand) a greater responsibility to adhere to an inner moral code that would say, emphatically, that dumping young children you’ve pledged to make your own is wrong, bad, immoral?

It’s the ultimate mea culpa. Throw up the hands. “Nobody said…”

Justin and Marsha found themselves at a loss about how to handle these two troubled young girls. They pulled out all their parenting skills to punish bad behavior—isolating, taking away privileges, removing toys and entertainment. They prayed out demons and perhaps did not spare the rod. Nothing worked. The behavior became worse.

This would have been a rich opportunity for the Harrises to learn some new parenting skills. Perhaps positive reinforcement, or long sessions of hugging and other positive physical contact, or one-on-one time pursuing new and interesting activities would have been useful in breaking down the wall of mistrust and anger that grew between these adults and their two young daughters.

Sympathetic observers point out that the Harrises had successfully raised three sons, concluding that they must be decent parents. It remains to be seen how well the sons turn out. But it’s also worth questioning whether the Harris’ success in raising their own children wasn’t a result of stellar parenting as much as a result of the boys’ adaptation to repressive, authoritarian parenting from Day One.

We know the girls were capable of appropriate behavior. The foster parents who cared for them before the Harris adoption as well as the family who have subsequently become the girls’ parents have remarked on the girls’ loving nature. Neither families have run shrieking in terror from the girls or found them a threat to the stability of their households. It’s not much of a stretch to conclude, based on this evidence, that the problem between the girls and the Harrises was the Harrises.

The rape has dominated discussion of the Harris’ rehoming decision. But a much bigger issue looms in the background. That is, the immorality of legal behavior.

For example, law enforcement beats up an innocent person because he didn’t instantly abide by police orders. A hunter spends $50,000 to kill a trophy animal. Legal. Immoral. A list of other examples would be long.

As far as I’ve heard, the Harrises have never said they did the wrong thing. Justin never admitted that he may have used his legislative seat (as representative for my home district) to push through an adoption against the expressed advice of caseworkers and the girls’ foster parents.

Yet it was a chain of events propelled by the Harrises which led to their custody of the girls in the first place. Where exactly does the responsibility begin?

Were the Harrises wrong to be so arrogant that they ignored advice from experienced caseworkers? Was it immoral to commit to parenting two very troubled young children and then renege?


How is it possible for the Harrises to have engaged in immoral, arrogant behavior and still—after all the exposure and shame—not recognize the depth of their immorality?

I would suggest that their hubris stems directly from pride in their own religiosity.

A recent study found that religious people aren’t more likely to do good than their nonreligious counterparts.[1] This isn’t the first or last evidence that religion does not impart morality. Here’s just one of many comments on this question.

  • These studies begin to provide empirical support for the idea that like other psychological faculties of the mind, including language and mathematics, we are endowed with a moral faculty that guides our intuitive judgments of right and wrong, interacting in interesting ways with the local culture. These intuitions reflect the outcome of millions of years in which our ancestors have lived as social mammals, and are part of our common inheritance as much as our opposable thumbs are.[2]

It makes sense that humans possess innate morality. In the view of those who subscribe to evolution, morality is an evolved necessary component of our continued existence. In the view of those who adhere to beliefs in extraterrestrial interference in human existence, morality would have been a key ingredient in intelligent design. Either way, all investigation points to an innate morality in human consciousness.

Recognition of innate wisdom and individual responsibility should be taught in every pulpit. Instead, especially in fundamentalist religions, individuals are taught to be afraid of their instincts. They’re taught to follow rules laid out in religious texts and nothing else matters.

Inevitably, a person’s avid embrace of institutionalized religion can and does interfere with the application of inborn human morality. The person trusts the religion, not himself. The religion’s rules or lack thereof in any given application supersedes any instinctive understanding of right action.

Assuming that the fundamental element of morality in human nature is not somehow missing in the genetic code of Justin and Marsha Harris, an interested observer would be forced to conclude that it was their religion that got them into this mess. Religion is the reason why, even months after their poor judgment became front page news, they still have not said they made a mistake, have not said they regret what they did. Have not apologized to the state agencies they maligned. Have not asked forgiveness of the public they supposedly served.

They did what they believed their religion and the law allowed. They parented according to a model condoned by the church, perhaps modeled after how they themselves were raised. What they did wasn’t a felony when they did it, therefore they did nothing wrong.

Harris has announced he won’t run for another term in office but stopped short of resigning from a seat he’ll hold another eighteen months. He continues to wield regulatory and fiscal power over the same state agency which he says forced him and Marsha to dump the little girls. He and his wife continue to operate their pre-school where they pass on their questionable religious teachings to innocent children.

As an embarrassed constituent who never voted for this man in the first place, I’ve given up hoping for a Harris epiphany any time soon. Even more regrettably, I doubt we’ll ever hear a word of censure from his equally-religious legislative colleagues and governor.

Perhaps the most we can salvage from this unsavory affair is to recognize the broader lessons. Religion doesn’t confer morality. Worse, an individual’s duty to pursue moral behavior is easily abdicated in favor of going to church.

We need more morality and less religion.



The Report Is In

Child's hand 0001Initiated in early spring, a study of Arkansas’ Department of Human Services (DHS) is Governor Asa Hutchinson’s first step in addressing systemic problems within the agency. The driving force behind this initiative was the ‘rehoming’ and subsequent rape of a six-year-old girl originally adopted by Rep. Justin Harris and his wife Marsha of West Fork, owner and operator of a pre-school, Growing God’s Kingdom.

Harris’ excuse for their ‘rehoming’ of two already traumatized little girls was that he had asked DHS for help and they had refused. He stated that the girls had been “damaged by previous abuse and he couldn’t manage them,” according to Friday’s coverage by the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (July 17, 2015).

Unfortunately, the governor failed to require this study to investigate whether Harris abused the power of his legislative position to coerce DHS approval of the adoption in the first place.

The couple fostering the two girls prior to the Harris adoption have voiced their belief that Harris had done exactly that. More than one observer cited local caseworkers’ opposition to the adoption. Harris was warned that the girls would not be suitable for his household. He pushed the adoption through anyway and immediately included the girls in a photograph used in his reelection campaign.

Less than a year later, when he and his wife decided the girls were too much to handle, Harris ‘rehomed’ them to a Benton County couple, Eric Francis and his wife.

Harris may have believed that the Francis household would serve as a suitable home. He cited the couple’s adoption of other children as evidence of their suitability. In hindsight, an observer might suspect that the couple’s eagerness to adopt had to do with the husband’s predilection for molesting children rather than any altruistic urge.

Prior to a stiff “I’m sorry for what happened to the girls” statement in June, Harris has admitted no wrongdoing. Now that the governor’s study is complete, it seems no blame will be assigned. We can take small comfort that Harris won’t run for another term.

State police investigating the extent of Francis’ abuse forced Harris to acknowledge to parents of his preschool students that a former employee had been convicted of sexually molesting children. Investigators found no specific evidence that Francis abused any children at the preschool, but several parents removed their children from the program anyway.

A year passed.

Without a reporter digging into the matter, the link between the conviction of Eric Francis and the role of Justin and Marsha Harris would never have been made public. Harris had reasons not to want any of this known. Not only was he holding elected office and operating a religious pre-school, he served as the co-chair of the House committee with control over the Department of Human Services. The whole debacle reflected poorly on his judgement.

Apparently none of this lit up on Gov. Hutchinson’s radar when he commissioned the study of DHS even though the trigger for the study was Harris’ accusation that he had to rehome the girls because DHS wouldn’t help. There has been nothing from the governor or in the report to criticize Harris for ignoring DHS advice and pressing for the adoption. There’s been no known follow-up on whether Harris held up the DHS budget request as part of his coercion as alleged by some observers. There’s been no statement by any of Harris’ Republican colleagues in the state legislature as to his ethics–or lack thereof.

Yes, DHS has problems and the report confirms just how bad they are. None of that excuses what Harris did.

Gov. Hutchinson brought in Paul Vincent to conduct the study, an experienced career man who formerly headed Alabama’s social services department. Vincent has conducted similar studies in numerous states. His analysis reveals a state agency in deep distress, understaffed and suffering long-term problems, all of which fell under Harris’ purview as Vice Chair of the House Committee on Aging, Children and Youth and as a member of the Joint Budget, a powerful committee which approves all appropriations for state agencies.

The study found that caseworkers in Arkansas are expected to handle twice as many cases as the national average (29 versus 15). The state has only two foster homes for every three children who need them which results in one of every five children in need being placed in a non-family living situation. Some caseworkers are forced to hold the child overnight at the office or at their own home.

The problem gets worse by the day. The number of children in foster care increased in just the last two months from 3,875 to 4,323. Fifty-five percent of fostered children are placed outside their home county because adequate arrangements aren’t available locally. With this kind of pressure within the system, the default option for caseworkers is to ignore cases where abuse is not clear cut.

The outcome is horrific. In 2011, 23 children died in families where social services had been in contact but had not taken the child out of the home. By 2014, the number jumped to 40. Most recently, a six year old boy died of intestinal rupture after being raped by his father. Social services had previously visited the home twice and found nothing to justify removing the child from the home.

The six-year-old raped after being rehomed by Justin and Marsha Harris came from an extremely troubled home situation. According to reports, this middle child of three daughters had already been through hell.

  • The girls had been taken into DHS custody in early 2011 after suffering through a staggering sequence of chaos and abuse. First, [the mother Sarah] Young discovered her husband sexually assaulting Jeannette, the oldest of the three girls, and turned him in; he is now in prison. (Other sources claim Young waited for days to turn the husband over to the police.) Young then became involved with a man who cooked and sold methamphetamine; a fire started by his meth lab provoked a police investigation that sent that man, too, to prison. The child abuse hotline soon thereafter received a call from an individual concerned for the girls’ safety, and investigators found the children in the care of a woman in a house with multiple adults who tested positive for meth; one man at the home had been sexually abusing both Jeannette and Mary, and he is now serving a 120-year sentence. When DHS collected the children, the eldest was 5, the middle girl was 3 and the youngest was under a year old. (More here)

Vincent pointed out the frustration experienced by caseworkers who want to help children and yet are left without sufficient resources and methods by which to do so. In response to the report, Gov. Hutchinson estimates it will mean hiring an additional 200 caseworkers at a cost of at least $8 million. No one knows where that money will come from.

Price tags remain unknown for the report’s recommendation for better and more accessible mental health care for foster children and others in the state’s care. For years, law enforcement and prison administrators have called for better mental health interventions for troubled offenders who end up incarcerated. The death toll among mentally ill prisoners continues to climb along with deaths of abused children while to date the state legislature has made no real strides in addressing this need.

Meanwhile, in their 2015 sessions Harris and fellow legislators spent countless hours fomenting unconstitutional laws to restrict abortion rights and to allow a Ten Commandments monument to be erected on state capitol grounds. And they’ve given themselves a pay increase from $15,869 to $39,400 per year.

If the Justin Harris case hadn’t been brought before the public by a reporter at the Arkansas Times, it’s questionable whether this study would have occurred. Because that’s how things are done in Arkansas. We don’t want to go looking for trouble.

We know trouble is out there. We know we are among the poorest states but other than appropriating scarce tax dollars to bribe companies to locate here, we can’t figure out how to do better.

Nearly 17% of Arkansans never graduate high school and less than 14% obtain a college degree. We have the next to lowest per capita income in the nation. Our crime rate is significantly higher than the national average and our prison population is growing accordingly. We also rank high in poor health, obesity, and use of tobacco and other dangerous drugs.

Despite the continuing lousy achievement levels in Arkansas, we seem incapable of trying to change anything. The conservative voters of this state loathe national standards in education; they want local control and tax dollars for programs such the Harris preschool where children are taught that their misbehavior is the result of demon possession.

Conservatives are outraged by the Affordable Care Act and legislators promise to end the state’s participation despite its progressive reforms including increased coverage for mental health care.

The governor says he will take the DHS problems to the faith-based community to increase foster care resources and improve care. Because religion helped Justin and Marsha Harris make good choices? Because religion guided Eric Francis? Because religion saved those little girls?

Why am I not reassured?