Students at Growing God’s Kingdom, a preschool in northwest Arkansas, will soon sing “God Our Father,” repeating the line, “God, our Father, we thank you for our many blessings,” before lunch every day.
This wouldn’t be a problem if the daycare was private. But it’s not. It receives state funding.
In fact, according to records, the daycare has received $2.6 million in state grants since 2005. This year it received $534,600. The daycare has about 110 students.
Owner Justin Harris, a state representative in the Arkansas legislature, describes his daycare on his website as “a faith-based preschool.” Therefore, he says, singing is in compliance with a new rule banning religious activity in state-funded preschools. While prayer is clearly defined as a religious activity under this new regulation, it allows religious music under limited circumstances, such as in a holiday pageant.
By using this supposed loophole, Harris has said he can still receive money under a state-funded preschool program for low-income families. Legal scholars say he is pushing boundaries.
“Singing your prayer is still saying your prayer,” says Terri Beiner, associate dean for faculty development at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law.
Steve Siebold, author of the book Sex, Politics and Religion: How Delusional Thinking is Destroying America, agrees.
“A prayer is a prayer whether you simply speak it or sing it, and it’s embarrassing for someone who should know better to try and play the system,” Siebold says. “School students are free to pray privately and to whatever God they believe in. Brainwashing pre-schoolers with ancient, super-natural mythology, that neither you nor I nor anyone else can prove to be true is morally reprehensible. It’s why God should be kept out of the classroom.”
School prayer has been a constant quagmire since the early 1960s, when the United States Supreme Court struck down government-mandated prayer and Bible study in public schools.
In August, Missouri voters overwhelmingly passed a “right to pray” amendment to the state’s constitution that strongly protects students’ religious expression in public schools. In January, the New Hampshire legislature voted to allow any family to demand an alternative curriculum if a current one offended them.
The New Hampshire law states: “The parental objection to course materials can be based on religious, philosophical, pedagogical or other reasons (or, possibly, no reasons at all) since there is no definition as to what constitutes the basis for an objection.”
School prayer is so complicated because it is such a high-voltage personal issue.
“Prayer in school is a very sore spot,” says Adam Laats, a Binghamton University Graduate School of Education assistant professor, who has researched this issue for years.
The Arkansas daycare issue is certainly a unique one, Beiner says.
“You don’t want the state entangled in an institution that encourages school prayer,” Beiner says. “It’s the state money that causes problems here.”
Harris doesn’t shy away from his daycare’s religious affiliation.
His political website states: “After three years, they [Harris and his wife] felt like God was calling them in a new direction and they opened up their home and created Growing God’s Kingdom, Inc. They converted their garage into a classroom and taught 16 children daily and had a total of three staff, the three included themselves. Justin and Marsha wanted to make a bigger difference in Northwest Arkansas, and opened the current facility Growing God's Kingdom.”
Amy Webb, spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Human Services, said that its staff attorney has explained to Harris that “whether prayer is spoken or sung, it is not allowed during the ABC school day.”
The new rule states: “All Arkansas Better Chance instruction and instruction materials must be secular and neutral with respect to religion. 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.”
When issues are discovered in daycares, Webb said, center officials are asked to correct the situation. People generally do, she said.
But if they don’t? Funding could ultimately be revoked, she said.