When teacher Corrie Haynes asked the preschoolers gathered on the green rug in front of her what sin is, a little boy answered confidently: “All the bad things we do.”
“Very good,” she said.
Next, the 13 children, most wearing maroon or blue polo shirts and dark skirts or pants, learned that everybody sins — even teachers, moms and dads, and the church pastor — and that although God hates sin, he doesn’t hate people who sin.
“He still loves us very much even when we sin,” Haynes said.
A minute later, Haynes led the 4-year-olds in a song about manners: “Always say thank you, always say please. When we’re ungrateful, God is not pleased.”
Such religious content has long been woven through the lessons at Landmark Preschool, which is nestled inside Landmark Baptist Church in the western Colorado city of Grand Junction. What’s different this year is that state taxpayers are covering the bill — more than $100,000 — for 20 preschoolers to attend classes there.
Colorado explicitly invited faith-based preschools to participate in its new $322 million universal preschool program, which despite a rocky rollout has proven popular with families. But state officials have sent mixed messages about whether preschools can offer religious instruction during state-funded class time. Prior to the launch, they said it was forbidden. Now, they say it’s not, but that next year it could be.
Debates about public funding for religious education come amid an ongoing conservative push to break down long-held ideas about the separation of church and state, including in a lawsuit underway now over a religious charter school in Oklahoma. Colorado’s Constitution, like those in many other states, prohibits using public money for religious purposes. But a series of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions has hollowed out such provisions.
In order to participate in Colorado’s universal preschool program, preschools, including Landmark, had to sign a contract agreeing to a variety of conditions, including that they would not discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity. That requirement is now the subject of two lawsuits — one by a Christian preschool in Chaffee County and the other by two Catholic parishes that run preschools near Denver. The contract that providers signed did not mention religious instruction.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.