The Freedom From Religion Foundation's March 2 press release says its actions have ensured that an Arkansas government agency will not grant public money to religious institutions, such as Springdale’s Ecclesia College.
It’s long past due for such a statement to be made, particularly as the grants to the college violate the establishment clauses of both the Arkansas and U.S. constitutions.
The government agency in question is the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District, which disbursed nearly $600,000 in grants to Ecclesia College for the 2013-14 school year.
Ernest Dumas of the Arkansas Times points out that an audit of the agency showed it rampantly and egregiously misused funds that were intended to be used by legislators on their districts in northwest Arkansas.
For example, in 2015, the district spent $637,000 to pay off an old debt to an out-of-state wholesale grocer -- while legislators intended for the money to be spent on local projects.
Regardless of whether one opposes religious education or not, Ecclesia College seems to be propped up by this same dubious, unaccountable system, although in this case the college was a favored beneficiary of some legislators in the state.
But the fact that Ecclesia’s funding from the district is clearly in opposition to two constitutions which attempt to forbid government to support or show legal antipathy towards religious institutions is also important, and is the reason why FFRF has seen success so far. FFRF is a nonprofit watchdog that advocates for separation of church and state.
In a Feb. 22 letter, Ryan Jayne of FFRF wrote, "The Arkansas Constitution clearly prohibits funding religious ministries. And the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment strictly prohibits the government from advancing religion."
The grants to Ecclesia College show clear political influence, notes Arkansas Times. Nearly all of the Republican legislators in the nine counties covered by the district pitched in to raise more than $500,000 to buy nearby parcels of land with old family houses listed at dormitories, in return for what is apparently just operating money.
FFRF believes it has achieved a victory here, as the district’s executive director, Joe Willis, said he would “make certain” that all future grants will not be used to advance a religious purpose, and added:
"It is certainly not the intention of the NWAEDD to violate either the Arkansas or United States Constitution," Willis told FFRF.
The sneaky way in which the district has provided Ecclesia with public money should induce taxpayers in other states to pressure their legislators to stop this kind of behavior -- as Arkansas hardly has a monopoly on shade appropriation process -- and return to more transparent forms when deciding how to appropriate public money in accordance with the laws of the state and of the Constitution.