Eliminate Health and Safety Standard Exemptions for Religious Child Care Centers

When parents place their children in a child care center, they expect the facilities to meet minimum health, safety, and caregiver-training standards set by law. But if that child care center is religiously affiliated, they may be unknowingly putting their children at risk.

In 14 states(1), religiously affiliated child care centers are not required to meet some or all of the same health, safety, and caregiver-training standards that licensed or “state-approved” child care centers must meet and are not required to be inspected in the same manner. However, despite the lax standards, many religiously based centers still receive taxpayer funding to operate.

Under the current funding system, if a child care center doesn’t meet the state’s health and safety standards for licensing, they can simply affiliate with a church, religious institution or parochial school, exempting the center from meeting those standards.

Depending on the state, this can mean that some of these child care centers are not regulated on the following criteria:

  • Minimum staff/child ratios
  • Minimum staff training requirements
  • Various health, safety, and sanitation standards

When Lillie Laster Jones’ secular child carecenter was shut down by the state of Florida in 2006 due to repeated violations of health and safety regulations, Laster Jones set up a church-affiliated child care center less than a week later.(2) By affiliating the center with a religious institution, she was able to operate beyond the scrutiny of state child welfare officials through a religious exemption to Florida's child care laws.(3)

In this case, only the church and the religious accrediting entity approved by the state was able to monitor the health, safety and sanitation of the center.(4) Two years after opening, Jones’ center was shut down again when a 5-year-old child was sexually assaulted by a 14-year-old while under her supervision.(5)

In 2010 alone, the federal government provided $5 billion for states, territories, and tribes through the Child Care and Development Fund. This fund assists with child care costs for low-income families, those receiving temporary public assistance, and those transitioning from public assistance to child care in order to work or attend training or educational programs.(6) Presently the federal government places few restrictions on how states distribute the taxpayer funds and how the states license the child care centers.

Religiously affiliated child care centers such as Laster Jones’ are also eligible for taxpayer funding as long as they are associated with a church or parochial school and are endorsed by a private religious accrediting agency. Fourteen states—Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, and Virginia—allow some or all religiously affiliated child care centers to be unlicensed.(7)

Child care standards are designed to ensure the health and safety of children and to provide parents with some assurance that their children will be well cared for. Exempting religiously affiliated child care centers from these requirements puts children at risk.

The Secular Coalition for America believes that if state licensing is utilized to ensure the safety of children in child care centers, all regulations should be applied equally to both secular and religiously affiliated programs. Federal and state taxpayer dollars should benefit only those child care centers that meet all such regulations.

(1) “Categorizing the 14 States with Exemptions for Centers,” Table 1, The Applied Research Center Childcare Report (2009).
(2) http://www.theledger.com/article/20080717/NEWS/807170534
(3) http://www.theledger.com/article/20080717/NEWS/807170534
(4) http://www.theledger.com/article/20080717/NEWS/807170534
(5) http://www.theledger.com/article/20080717/NEWS/807170534
(6) Office of Child Care, http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ccb/ccdf/index.htm
(7) “Categorizing the 14 States with Exemptions for Centers,” Table 1, The Applied Research Center Childcare Report (2009).

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