Church day care centers are not currently regulated in Alabama, but a bill in the state legislature could change that.
The proposed Child Care Safety Act would require church-affiliated child care centers to be regulated by the Alabama Department of Human Resources.
"Forcing every church to take a license is not going to be a solution here," Robin Mears, executive director of the Alabama Christian Education Association, told AL.com
Licensed day care centers are subject to yearly inspections by the DHR, have to do criminal background checks, provide CPR training for employees, keep specific staff-to-child ratios and make sure their playground equipment is maintained.
The current state law allows church-affiliated day care centers to operate without the DHR inspections and rules. The church day care centers do have to meet requirements set by fire and health departments.
Democratic state Rep. Pebblin Warren, who sponsored the regulation bill, said: "There are excellent church-affiliated day cares."
But she says her grandson was victimized at an unlicensed church day care center.
"The problem is that under that title of 'religiously affiliated organization' we opened a loophole to anyone who wanted to start a day care without any oversight," Warren stated.
According to Mears, churches that are members of the ACEA are overseen by many agencies.
"We now answer to 12 agencies," Mears countered. "So when we're told we're not regulated -- we're regulated. The fire marshal as well as the health department can close any church day care any time they deem them to be outside the law."
Mears added that "over time" things like "criminal background checks" have been added.
There is no specific agency checking to make sure unlicensed day care centers are following health and safety rules, unless someone files a complaint with a district attorney's office that is followed up.
"There are a lot of criminals taking advantage of the process," Warren insisted.
According to Warren, there is a religious organization in Mobile that allows day care centers to use its stationery for $600 so they appear to be church-affiliated centers.
If a day care center wants to open with a religious exemption, it has to send a letter to the DHR on church letterhead.
Warren recalled an unlicensed day care center that she personally visited.
"The grass on the playground was higher than the kids' play equipment," Warren said. "[The day care owner] had about 90 kids in this school. They had about three teachers for 90 kids."
"Licensed care does not ensure safety," Mears insisted. "It ensures one more person coming onto the property."
The Eagle Forum of Alabama, a conservative group that says it acknowledges "the Holy Scripture as the source of the best code of moral conduct" on its website, also opposes regulating church day care centers.
Deborah Love, executive director of Eagle Forum of Alabama, explained her opposition:
HB 277 removes religious liberty protections and requires state regulation of religious institutions. HB 277 will reduce positive options for Alabama's families who rely on these institutions every day. HB 277 at its core is government overreach into the most important private institutions in our state.
Mears said the ACEA has proposed changing the existing law to include staff-to-child ratios, and mandating that church day care centers have insurance for casualty, property and liability.
According to Mears, if the new law passes many churches will not obey it, and "a lot of day care would go underground."
"[This bill] is not about religion, because it allows you to teach all the religion you want," Warren countered.
Licensed child care centers have declined in numbers in recent years, while license-exempt day care centers have increased, which may be because the unlicensed centers can charge less by hiring fewer employees to look after the children and by not following state regulations, notes AL.com.
"I remain very optimistic," Warren added. "This is something God has put on my heart. This is a health and safety issue for children who can't talk for themselves."
Warren withdrew her bill temporarily on March 15 because she did not feel there were enough votes, but she plans to negotiate with her fellow lawmakers.
"There has to be some type of oversight. Whether it's a license, or whether it's an inspection. There has to be oversight on all of our day cares," Warren said.
Once again, she pointed out that her bill does not regulate religion.
"This is not about churches," Warren stated. "This is not even about religion. This is about babies, who can't speak for themselves."