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Religious day cares avoid licensing in Virginia, but many still take government subsidies

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Author: 
Hafner, Katherine
Publication Date: 
21 Nov 2017
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For decades, unlicensed church-run day cares in Virginia have argued the separation of church and state should exempt them from government oversight, but more than a quarter of them collectively receive millions of dollars in federal and state subsidies each year.

Religious day cares say government money is vital to their mission of providing child care to the poorest populations in the state. Critics say any day care that accepts government money should accept the same oversight.

An analysis by The Virginian-Pilot found that 275 of almost 1,000 religious day cares received a total of $6.8 million in 2016 through Virginia’s Child Care Subsidy Program.

All but a few of almost two dozen Hampton Roads religious centers contacted for this story declined to talk about the issue. Kamara Cooper, director of New Hope Church of God in Christ’s day care in Norfolk, said the subsidies help families. Her center received a little more than $103,000 last year and teaches the Christian Abeka curriculum.

“Most of the children we service are in poverty or low-income,” Cooper said. “If they don’t receive the subsidy, they’re going to leave their children with anybody. … We provide them with a place to be comfortable. A safe place.”

It’s “not just money,” she said.

But others, including church-state separatists and an organization that represents religious schools, say taking state money violates the very principle religious organizations use as their rationale when trying to avoid regulations.

Licensed day cares have to undergo frequent inspections, background checks and staff training, much of which religious day cares can avoid. Centers that take subsidies have to comply with some, but not all, of those rules.

“A simple way to shield from government overreach is to say no to taxpayer dollars,” said Dan Zacharias, head of the Old Dominion Association of Church Schools. He represents many religious schools and child care centers, none of which accepts subsidies.

“It boggles my mind why some religious day cares want to take federal money.”

“It holds us accountable”

Religiously affiliated child care centers are not required to be licensed in Virginia, one of a handful of states with such a rule.

In the late 1970s, religious institutions pushed back on newer, stricter state licensing regulations that included standards for health, nutrition and disciplinary practices. They claimed they could not apply for a license to do something they considered “an integral part of their religious ministry,” according to a later court opinion.

Soon, lawmakers put the exemption into state code: Religious day cares no longer needed to be licensed. The law has survived several attempts to overturn it in the legislature and the courts.

The subsidies help low-income families send their children to participating centers. The program doled out almost $132 million in 2016, with about 20 percent coming from the state and the rest from the federal government.

Public money is prohibited from going to religious institutions under a section of the Virginia Constitution, but the state Department of Social Services says it’s earmarked for families, not child care centers – and therefore not subject to the rule. The checks, however, go straight to the centers.

For the providers, the advantage is a steady income along with access to some free training and meal programs, said Barbara Newlin, director of child care and early childhood development at DSS.

Mustard Seed Child Care Center in Norfolk is run by Royster Memorial Presbyterian Church. It does not receive subsidies, but its leaders chose to get a license years ago.

“It certainly seemed the responsible thing to do,” said director Katie Strickland. “If you’re receiving federal or state funding, then I do think you should be obligated to abide by your own state regulations. I don’t feel like they’re very Draconian. I think they’re very reasonable.”

That’s why Karinia Elliott, director of Truly Blessed Learning Center – which is under Christian Community Outreach in Portsmouth – said she does not philosophically support the religious exemption, though her center has been unlicensed since it opened more than a decade ago and receives subsidies.

Elliot said the center has followed most protocols for being a licensed center and plans to get licensed soon. It received about $43,400 in subsidies last year.

“I think we should follow the same laws of the state because we’re still operating in the state,” Elliott said. “It holds us accountable.”

Leveling the playing field

The U.S. Supreme Court brought the issue to the forefront earlier this year when it ruled that the state of Missouri was wrong to reject a church-run school’s grant application to resurface its playground.

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Berkeley’s law school, wrote that the idea of a wall between church and state was “left in disarray, if not shambles” by the ruling.

But Hillary Byrnes of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote that the case was “a critical victory in trying to attain a level playing field when it comes to generally available public benefits.”

Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said he doesn’t find Virginia’s exemption-riddled child care system to be a level playing field. Anyone taking care of children should follow the same safety standards – especially those centers asking for money, he said.

“It sounds like some of these day cares want to have their cake and eat it too.”

Zacharias with the Old Dominion Association of Church Schools also believes in the separation of church and state – but to him that means keeping government hands out of institutional business. The group often lobbies the General Assembly against new regulation proposals.

Religious-exempt day cares “are in my opinion among the safest and yet there’s a big push for greater control,” Zacharias said. “Our fear is once that’s established, that can be used to control other things” like curriculum.

Some changes in the past few years have inched religious day cares toward more oversight. When former President Barack Obama reauthorized a federal law governing the child care fund in 2014, it added requirements like annual facility inspections and federal fingerprint background checks when hiring day care staff members.

Newlin with DSS in Virginia said the changes are steps in the right direction. Regulations tied to subsidies are already similar to licensing, just “not quite as extensive.”

Angela Wirt, executive director of Child Care Aware of Virginia, works with unlicensed providers to help them wade through the rules. Ideally, she’d like to see all child care facilities held to the same standards.

“That’s not where we are, and that may never be where we get to because we do live in a rather conservative state.”

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-founder of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, said the section of Virginia’s code prohibiting religious funding has been “ignored and undercut.”

Putting safety first shouldn’t put religious day cares out of business, she said, and all should play by the same rules.

“And if these day cares can’t, they should close.”

-reprinted from Pilot Online

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Entered Date: 
29 Nov 2017
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