After the Freedom From Religion Foundation contacted a West Virginia school district over a four-year-old kindergarten program run by a religious daycare center and overseen by the district, State Superintendent of Schools Charles Heinlein advised that West Virginia 4K providers must not offer religious programming as part of public instruction.
FFRF complained to Berkley County Schools about religious activity at New Beginnings Child Care Center in Inwood, W.Va. A parent reported to FFRF that New Beginnings inflicts prayer before meals and retains religious icons in the part of the facility used by tots. The facility provides state-funded 4K four days a week, then capitalizes on the government program by offering parents a fifth day of operational daycare which involves religious instruction. FFRF contends this further blurs the line for youngsters who are too young to be able to distinguish public education from church education.
FFRF is a national state/church watchdog with more than 21,000 members nationwide, including members in West Virginia.
FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a May 9 letter to Berkeley County Schools: “Through its partnership with a child care facility that offers religious programming, Berkeley County Schools violates the Establishment Clause by entangling itself with religion,” and furthermore, “explicitly undermines West Virginia’s stated goal of universal access to early childhood education.”
Elliott advised: “This constitutional violation is more egregious when the students are so young and thus more vulnerable to coercion.”
On June 30, the Berkley County Superintendent contacted the State Superintendent of Schools to seek an interpretation of the applicable laws.
Heinlein’s reply on Aug. 5 largely concurred with FFRF’s letter: “[It] is implicit in all of the WVBE policies that they must be implemented in a manner which does not violate State or Federal Constitutions.” Heinlein continued, “During the hours of operation in which the… WV Pre-K program is operated, the providers must: (1) use the WV Pre-K Program approved curriculum; (2) refrain from teaching religious beliefs; and (3) avoid engaging in religious practices, including praying at mealtimes.”
With respect to the religious icons and images, including a cross on the New Beginnings sign, Heinlein simply wrote: “no State funds may be used to purchase or maintain them and they may not be included or alluded to during conversation or instruction during the WV Pre-K program.” He said that religious icons and images were otherwise permissible.
FFRF contends that Heinlein is mistaken and that all pre-K classes must be held in a secular environment. “Facilities used to teach public school students have to be secular. This is a bedrock constitutional principle that is not erased merely because classes are held in a non-traditional setting,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF Co-President.
The state’s Office of Early Learning was directed by Heinlein to develop model language for collaborative agreements with daycare centers. That included specific language to protect the constitutional rights of families:
“The WV Pre-K program may not contain religious observances, such as prayer, grace, confession, church attendance or religious instruction or use religious materials. The WV Pre-K program cannot be used to proselytize or attempt to persuade or convert children or their families to religion or a particular religious persuasion.”
Gaylor commented, “The center should be strongly reprimanded for forcing prayer on tiny children. This is these children’s first introduction to public education, yet sectarian religion permeates the environment. One in five adult Americans today is nonreligious. Nonreligious or non-Christian parents should not have to send their children to ‘public schools’ replete with Christian images, which make them feel like outsiders.”