Arkansas religious college grant scandal bolsters FFRF’s case

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A corruption scandal unfolding in Arkansas demonstrates the pitfalls of disbursing discretionary public grants to religious colleges.

“There’s a massive scandal brewing in Arkansas involving Republican legislators and a conservative Christian college,” Hemant Mehta writes on his Friendly Atheist blog. “Beginning in January of 2013, state Rep. Micah Neal worked with a senator to give $600,000 in taxpayer money to two nonprofits in the state in exchange for bribes. One of those groups was Ecclesia College in the northwest part of the state. The small bible school received a $200,000 gift from Neal and the other politician; in return, Neal got a kickback of $18,000.” 

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is very familiar with Ecclesia College, since it played a key role in ending the flow of Arkansas state money to the institution. Early last year, FFRF protested the handing out of state money to the overtly religious entity, since the grants to the college violated both the Arkansas and the U.S. Constitutions.

“The Arkansas Constitution clearly prohibits funding religious ministries,” FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote in a letter last February to Joe Willis, executive director of the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District. “And the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment strictly prohibits the government from advancing religion.”

The Arkansas agency was laudably cooperative. Willis promised in his reply soon after to “make certain” that all future grants “will not be used to advance a religious purpose or cause.” 

It’s clear now that the problem was manifold — not only were the grants constitutionally suspect, they were also mired in corruption.

“The malfeasance around the grants to Ecclesia College reveals that money of this sort can be dubious on multiple levels,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “This misappropriation of public funds would not have happened if the government had strictly applied the constitutionally mandated separation of state and church.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a state/church watchdog organization with more than 26,000 members nationwide, including in Arkansas.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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