Friday, November 11, 2011

EDITORIAL >>State taxes and religion

Not one but two members of the Arkansas legislature run daycare centers that pound their religious doctrines into preschool children. There is nothing wrong with that as long as parents know that their children are getting religious training, in both cases the teachings of the Assemblies of God church, and as long as the school is paid for by the parents, the legislators themselves, their churches or other private sources.

But not by the government—not the taxpayers of the state or the country. That would put government in the business of inculcating a particular religion, which is something that the first Europeans who took refuge on American soil abhorred and which the U.S. Constitution forbids. Americans seem to be not so hot for the separation of church and state any longer, but those who want the government involved in religion want it to support only their particular beliefs and none other.

As it happens, the preschool centers run by both Sen. Johnny Key and Rep. Justin Harris, who represent constituencies in northwest Arkansas, operate with federal dollars and also at some cost to the state government, which regulates them and (supposedly) sees that they follow the law. Key and Harris are tea-party Republicans who regularly lambaste government spending, particularly federal spending.

Americans United for Sepa-ration of Church and State, the watchdog for Jefferson’s favorite doctrine, has complained about the lawmakers’ businesses. Federal monies cannot be spent for religious indoctrination and there is no doubt that religious instruction constitutes a big part of the work at Harris’ business, which he calls Growing God’s Kingdom, and Key’s operation, the Noah’s Ark Preschool.

Now the state Department of Human Services is checking on the schools’ program to see if there is any taint of religious instruction, either general or sectarian, which the department was supposed to have been doing all along. Both places got certified to get state and federal money back when Mike Huckabee was governor. No one would have been surprised that Rev. Huckabee had his bureaucrats give unusual forbearance to the church schools’ use of taxpayer money, but Huckabee surrendered the government to Mike Beebe five years ago.

Rep. Harris’ daycare center gets almost $1 million a year in government money, mostly federal. Key’s operation is smaller, but the federal government gave him $194,400 this year.

It is safe to say that without federal support they would be out of business or else they would be much smaller operations.

Both Harris and Key say they keep all the religious training sort of separate and that they pay for church materials out of their own pockets. Sure they do.

Rep. Harris suggests that the complaints are part of a campaign against God and religion. He posted a bit of Scripture on his website this week implying that he was supposed to be ashamed of his religion but that he was not. No one should apologize for his religion. But religious instruction should be done at home and in the church, and spiritual values should be inculcated there, by both instruction and personal example. If you are going to do it in an educational institution, from preschool through high school, you should do it free of either government support or restraint.

Their hypocrisy is equally troubling. The political careers of both men were built on hostility to the federal government—rampant federal spending and government intrusion into private spheres. Both men have been leaders in the Republican effort the last six months to prevent the state from getting federal dollars to build a private insurance market where Arkansans can shop for the best and cheapest medical insurance.

They and their colleagues say the country and the state need to slash or abolish socialistic spending programs. But not, of course, the most socialistic program of all—government-funded training of 3- and 4-year-olds. That would be meddling with their own livelihoods.

Let’s see if the bureaucrats and their boss, the governor, are willing to enforce the law when it affects the livelihoods of two powerful legislators who have oversight over agencies that deal with children’s affairs. Key is a member of the powerful Joint Budget Committee, which sets the parameters of all spending programs, and the Senate Education Committee. Rep. Harris got himself situated on the House Education Committee and the Children and Youth Committee, the better to look after his personal affairs.

Haven’t we seen this before?