Religious day care: rattle over funding

DAY care is beginning to rattle the United States religious community. There is little dispute about the pressing need for trained workers and adequate facilities to keep tabs on preschool and school-age youngsters while their parents are at work.

And churches and religious-related groups are almost unanimous in urging Congress to pass legislation that would provide billions of dollars to provide new child-care centers and improve existing ones.

There is heated controversy, however, over who would get these funds and whether their use by religious groups would violate principles of separation of church and state.

A bill now working its way through Congress, sponsored in the Senate by Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut and in the House by Dale Kildee (D) of Michigan, is aimed at low- and middle-income families. It would tie federal aid to regulation, with child-care centers required to meet licensing and inspection standards to qualify for funds.

As originally written, this measure contained no restrictions on federal funds being funneled to religious institutions. But provisions added later at the prodding of the National Education Association set guidelines for church groups receiving such aid.

Intended to prevent church-state entanglement, these amendments would require, among other things, that religious organizations run nonsectarian programs, refrain from using public funds for capital improvements, waive exemptions from civil rights laws regarding staff hiring, comply with state and local licensing laws, and remove all religious symbols from day-care facilities.

These restrictions, however, have sparked heated debate and had the effect of offending religious groups on both the left and the right.

Conservative church groups, including the National Association of Evangelicals and the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, oppose them on the grounds that they discriminate against religion or tend to lock religion off the playground.

And staunch defenders of the church and state ``wall,'' such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State, oppose church participation in public funding, with or without stipulations. They claim that special qualifications for churches would unconstitutionally entangle government with religion and that lack of them would allow a type of parochiaid, which also violates separation principles.

Others are wary but looking for compromise. The National Council of Churches, for example, is leaning toward the proposed legislation and would be willing to forgo some of the NEA provisions, including the mandate to remove religious symbols from church-based day-care facilities, to accommodate conservative churches.

Margery Freeman of NCC's child advocacy office insists that the bottom line is to provide quality in day care. She says there has been a ``partnership between government and churches over the years'' which does not violate separation of church and state. Ms. Freeman admits, however, that even regulated publicly funded child care in churches would be very difficult to monitor for abuses.

Steven Bayne, who headed a task force on family policy for the American Jewish Committee, also favors federal dollars for religious-based day care. He believes that such a monetary provision is the ``moral'' responsibility of government.

Mr. Bayne says that church- or synagogue-based child care would pass constitutional muster if the emphasis of the program is on ``the cultural aspects of life but not specifically on religion, creed, or doctrine.''

The Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs was on the fence about the legislation until recently. But now committee counsel Oliver Thomas says his group is ``moving toward general opposition.'' Mr. Thomas explains that while Baptists are very sympathetic to the need for child care, they are dubious about the possibility of a meaningful compromise on funding for church-based care that does not violate the First Amendment.

Rob Boston of Americans United says his group's position is that subsidized care must not be made at the expense of church-state separation. He says that if federal funds went to churches, government regulation would quickly follow.

A Thursday column

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