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Leaders of First Baptist Child Development Center in Salt Lake City play outside with children in June 2020.
Carol Wood, director of First Baptist Child Development Center, and the Rev. Curtis Price play with children at First Baptist Church in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 24, 2020.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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Why some faith-based child care centers may miss out on ‘Build Back Better’ funds

Some religious freedom advocates want the Democratic Party to adjust proposed funding rules

Top Democratic leaders have linked their party’s pricey “Build Back Better” plan to religious teachings on caring for children and the poor.

But if its section on child care and pre-K funding passes as written, the bill could leave some faith-based centers that celebrate these values out in the cold, according to Stanley Carlson-Thies, founder and senior director of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance.

“The current language in the ‘Build Back Better’ bill seems to go out of its way to marginalize religious organizations. That’s a terrible precedent to establish,” he said.

Carlson-Thies’ concerns stem primarily from proposed eligibility requirements, which include adherence to a number of nondiscrimination rules. The bill implies that programs can’t access the new funding if they base hiring or admissions decisions on personal faith.

“There’s nothing in it that says faith groups per se are disqualified. It’s just that some of these requirements make it impossible for some of them to take part,” Carlson-Thies said.

An aide to the House Committee on Education and Labor, which approved the child care and pre-K rules, said the “Build Back Better” proposal will not affect the eligibility of faith-based centers currently receiving federal funds.

But for the bill to succeed, policymakers need to ensure the path is clear for other religiously affiliated providers to start accepting government support, Carlson-Thies said.

“When you’re trying to expand the services offered, it seems like you’d want great clarity so that faith-based organizations feel welcome and able to provide the care that parents are looking for,” he said.

Religion and child care

Historical records show that religious organizations were operating formal child care programs as far back as 1789. These early efforts were “foundational” to the development of both the religious and secular centers that exist today, according to a May 2021 report on faith-based child care from the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Religiously affiliated programs have continued to play a prominent role in America’s child care landscape even as church membership and attendance have become less common.

More than half of working-parent households that use center-based care are enrolled at schools affiliated with a religious organization, the Bipartisan Policy Center reported.

In part because of faith-based centers’ enduring popularity, past policymakers have taken pains to ensure government initiatives aimed at expanding access to child care leave room for religious providers. For example, the Child Care and Development Block Grant program clearly states that families receiving associated funds can bring the money to religiously affiliated programs, Carlson-Thies said.

“These rules, which have been in place since 1990, specifically protect the religious identity, teaching, hiring and even faith-based admissions of the child care providers that get these federally funded certificates,” he said.

Carlson-Thies had hoped the “Build Back Better” plan would adopt this same approach. Instead, the proposed rules for new child care and pre-K funding raise more religious freedom questions than they answer.

“This is not going to be good for a plan that needs to find more child care slots and seats in pre-kindergarten classes,” he said.

Religious freedom concerns

In recent weeks, Carlson-Thies and other religious freedom advocates have been in touch with policymakers about these concerns. Much of the “Build Back Better” bill is still in flux, so it’s possible that the final version will clear up faith-related confusion.

Based on their public comments about the legislation, it seems like Democratic leaders recognize the importance of gaining religious support. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently cited her own faith to explain why she’s passionate about increasing government funding for preschools and child care.

Policymakers should “make sure that all children have the opportunity that they deserve — they’re all blessings containing their spark of divinity,” she said during an Oct. 20 press conference about the “Build Back Better” bill, according to Religion News Service.

As it stands, the bill would undoubtedly expand opportunities for children, but it easily could do even more, Carlson-Thies said, noting that adding faith-based protections to rules governing child care and pre-K funding would ensure all families get the type of care they want.

“When faith-based providers are marginalized in government programs, the funding doesn’t serve its purpose as well as it could,” he said.

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