Rotten day cares don't hide behind God, just the Alabama Legislature

By Kyle Whitmire
April 14, 2016

Restaurants, tattoo shops and hair salons are required to undergo regular inspection in Alabama. Child care centers, however, can operate without being inspected by Alabama DHR if they're license-exempt.

In Alabama there are real problems and there are imaginary problems.

The state's ban on hunting over baited fields is an imaginary problem, but that hasn't stopped some lawmakers from trying make it legal to hunt over a big pile of corn.  

Lane Cake is an imaginary problem, and yet every year the Alabama Legislature considers the same resolution to make it the Alabama state dessert. If they'd just pass the thing so we could move on to more important imaginary matters, like the state appetizer or the state cocktail.

Religious oppression in schools is an imaginary problem, too, which Rep. Mack Butler solved last year by passing a bill that made things like student-led prayer legal. By Butler's own admission, everything his bill legalized was already legal, constitutionally protected and fully litigated before the United States Supreme Court. He just wanted to make those legal things even more legal.

Lawmakers love imaginary problems because there's no cost to them politically and little cost to the state financially, except when they invite federal court challenges.

Real problems, on the other hand, cost money. Real problems take effort to solve. Real problems don't lend themselves to State House grandstanding, nor do they yield the kind of constituent back-patting lawmakers crave.

Alabama's negligence when it comes to regulating and licensing religious affiliated daycares is a real problem. Alabama law doesn't merely neglect state oversight of religious-affiliated daycares, it strains the muscles in its neck looking the other way.

It's as simple as this: In Alabama, a day care can invoke a religious exemption to the rules and regulations that apply to for-profit and other non-profit child care centers. As a result, hundreds of child care centers throughout the state operate without oversight. In some instances, operators who have been shut down by the state have reopened by hiding behind Alabama's religious exemption.

Let's be clear here. We're not talking about the state dictating curriculum. We're talking about simple, basic stuff, such as ensuring these facilities have employees who know CPR and that they don't hire convicted pedophiles to change children's diapers.

And let's be clear about something else. This isn't about targeting religious daycares for a greater degree of scrutiny.

My wife and I recently put our new son in a church day care that, not only subjects itself voluntarily to much higher degrees of government scrutiny and accreditation, but also actively advocates for the state to close the religious day care loophole.

When I take my son there each morning, there on the bulletin board where they post school announcements and notices about baby food recalls, is a poster. It says, "In Alabama tattoo parlors  must be licensed. Child care centers don't."

The reason my child's daycare has stepped out on this issue is simple: Ensuring the safety and wellbeing of children is not a matter of religious freedom; it's about the safety and wellbeing of children.

We don't exempt surgeons from being licensed to cut on patients because they work for religious affiliated hospitals.

We don't let lawyers practice law without passing the bar exam because of where they go to church.

We don't even let barbers and hairdressers cut hair — no, really, they have to be licensed in Alabama — because of which god they worship.

But if you wanted to open your own daycare next to a porn store (this really happened) or staff it with child predators, you can do that, as long as you hide behind religion. Not only can you do that, but you can get government money when you do.

Meanwhile, Alabama lawmakers would rather drug test food stamp recipients than require background checks on child care workers. 

When Alabama looks the other way, children get hurt. Sometimes, they die.

When I started poking around this issue, I was relieved that lawmakers appeared to be closing the loophole. What else would something called the Alabama Child Care Provider Inclusion Act do?

I should know better.

Rather than protecting children from ne'er-do-wells and scofflaws, the bill, introduced by Rep. Rich Wingo, R-Tuscaloosa, doesn't do any such thing at all. Instead, it would protect adoptions agencies that refuse to place orphaned or abandoned children with gay and lesbian couples.

I felt naive because, for a moment, I thought our lawmakers wanted to fix a real problem.

I guess I let my imagination get away from me.



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