News: CJ Exclusives

Rules Commission OKs Religious Activities at NC Pre-K Schools

Commission cites state law barring Child Care Commission from interfering

A regulatory oversight panel Thursday rejected an effort by the N.C. Child Care Commission to ban religious instruction at schools held at religious facilities that participate in the NC Pre-K program.

The Rules Review Commission, which oversees the regulation process for state agencies, voted 9-1 to reject the Child Care Commission’s proposal, which would have prohibited religious activity during the Pre-K class day. Rules commission members cited a state law forbidding the Child Care Commission from interfering with religious activities at such centers, and said that the Child Care Commission should take it up with the General Assembly if they wanted a change.

“The statute to me couldn’t be any more clear,” said Rules Review Commission member Jeannette Doran.

“From my perspective on the statute as written, there’s no way to write the rule to meet the statute,” said Garth Dunklin, one of the Rules Review Commission members. “What I am hearing are some very compelling discussions on both sides. But they’re questions that need to be made on Jones Street.”

The General Assembly meets in the Legislative Building, located on Jones Street in Raleigh.

The NC Pre-K program was previously known as More at Four, the state’s attempt to help children considered at risk of failing in school to get an early start to their education.

Margaret Hamilton of the Upper Room Christian Academy told the Rules Review Commission that the religious ban presented complications and confusion for parents and children attending the Pre-K program at the academy.

“We’ve had parents who have asked that they be included in the religious instruction,” Hamilton said. “We’ve told them that we were told that we could not do it. … If we have a chapel on Friday morning with the other classes, the students [from Pre-K] cannot attend. Some of the parents just want their children to go.”

The school’s Web page says that it offers kindergarten through fifth grade, in addition to preschool and Pre-K programs.

Hamilton said that sometimes parents and children in the Pre-K program wanted to participate in Christmas pageants, but the religious ban further complicated rehearsals for such programs.

Child Care Commission representatives said they were concerned that students might receive unwelcome religious instruction at centers. Alexandra Gruber, an attorney representing the commission, said members wanted to defend parental choice.

“There’s nothing in the curricula that would prevent a religious facility teaching religious values or instructing on religion in a non Pre-K classroom,” Gruber said. “The commission recognized that there are limited NC Pre-K classrooms in the state of North Carolina.

“In some communities, there may be only one child care facility that has applied for and received the approval to participate in the NC Pre-K program,” Gruber continued. “Their concern was that for some children, if the only available option in a county is a religious-sponsored facility that teaches religion during the NC Pre-K day, that parents would not have an option to choose otherwise.

“The only option for a Muslim child might be to attend a Christian NC Pre-K program that instructs Christianity during that 6.5-hour to 10-hour day,” Gruber said. “The commissioners were concerned that this would not be appropriate developmentally for children.”

She also noted that the N.C. Court of Appeals has upheld that a Pre-K program is a constitutional right for what are called “at-risk children,” or children considered at risk of failure in school.

The Rules Review Commission had raised concerns about the Child Care Commission’s rule previously. Earlier this month, the Child Care Commission reaffirmed its desire to keep the religious ban in the rule.

Previously, when the Pre-K program operated as More at Four, it was under the Department of Public Instruction, and a similar religious ban policy was in place.
However, those policies did not go through the Child Care Commission, and the statutory provision regarding religion did not cover the Department of Public Instruction.

Barry Smith (@Barry_Smith) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.