LITTLE ROCK — The state Department of Human Services on Tuesday released a proposed rule clarifying that state funding for pre-kindergarten education must not be used for religious activities.

LITTLE ROCK — The state Department of Human Services on Tuesday released a proposed rule clarifying that state funding for pre-kindergarten education must not be used for religious activities.

The proposed rule was prompted by a complaint the state received in November from the Washington-based group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. The group accused Growing God’s Kingdom, a preschool in West Fork owned by state Rep. Justin Harris, R-West Fork, of using state funding from the Arkansas Better Chance program to promote religion in violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.

DHS sent an inspector to the school, and the inspector reported seeing religious art on the walls, activity schedules that included Bible study and Bible song sessions, a “Pledge of Allegiance to the Christian Flag” and “Pledge to the Bible” on the walls of one classroom, and children singing “Jesus Loves Me.”

Harris’ school, which is not affiliated with any church, was awarded $534,600 in ABC money for the current school year. It is among nearly 300 preschools, some of which are affiliated with churches, that were awarded a total of $102 million in ABC funds for this school year.

The proposed rule states that “all ABC instruction and instruction materials must be secular and neutral with respect to religion” and that “no religious activity may occur during any ABC day.”

An ABC day is defined as seven hours beginning with the first ABC activity of the day.

DHS spokeswoman Amy Webb said an unannounced inspection would be conducted at a school whenever DHS receives a complaint about that school. Inspectors also would check for compliance during routine inspections, she said.

The state Board of Education, which funds the ABC program — DHS administers the funds — is expected to open the rule for a 30-day public-comment period next month. The rule will go back to the board for final approval, possibly with changes, and will be reviewed by a legislative committee.

Harris said he is concerned that the rule would force his school to discontinue religious songs and prayers before meals. He said that in the past, parents in West Fork have had the choice of sending their children to a secular ABC school or to his faith-based program, and the state is taking away their right to choose.

“You’re discriminating against them and against the Christian aspect of it,” he said.

Webb said the rule is not discriminatory.

“In fact, we believe this is very fair. It requires that taxpayer funding not be used to pay for religious instruction. That’s what the Constitution calls for,” she said.

Harris said he has been consulting with the Alliance Defense Fund in Scottsdale, Ariz., about the matter. He said a lawsuit is a possibility, but “my goal is not to sue the state. My goal is for the state to do the right thing.”

State Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, owns two faith-based preschools in Mountain Home that receive ABC funds. He said Tuesday he could not comment on the proposed rule because he had not seen it.

Ian Smith, an attorney for Americans United, said of the proposed requirements, “Overall these are pretty good.” But Smith also said his group has some concerns.

Smith said religious images should be covered during secular instruction — the proposed rule permits the display of religious materials — and said ABC recipients should be required to form separate non-profit organizations to manage state and private money separately.

Without separate handling of the funds, Smith said it is unclear how, for example, DHS could tell that a teacher who provides both secular and religious instruction is not doing both on a state-funded salary.

“At 4:01 p.m., suddenly they’re not being paid by ABC funds and they’re being paid by private funds? How do you tell that?” he said.

Webb said DHS is trying to be reasonable while “walking a very fine line.”

“The General Assembly has said they want broad access for kids, they want kids to have access to quality pre-K education, and the faith-based programs are part of that,” she said.