Editorial: Missouri extended oversight to religious schools for a reason. Don’t undo it.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

April 5, 2024

By St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial Board

Three years ago, Missouri legislators finally confronted an intolerable hazard to children: State law at the time put religiously affiliated boarding schools outside the purview of state public health and safety inspectors, on grounds of religious freedom. Not surprisingly, some Christian boarding schools became hotbeds of hidden child abuse and other dangers.

A 2021 state law changed that, with overwhelming bipartisan support, by requiring those schools to submit to standard state oversight on issues like health and safety, building codes and — crucially — background checks for staffers. There’s been no indication that these common-sense reforms have infringed on anyone’s religious freedoms.

But now, new legislation from hard-right lawmakers would risk obstructing those protections. It would allow the schools to choose oversight by a new board stacked with Christian school activists instead of answering directly to the state’s Department of Social Services.

Whatever its proponents claim, this is a plain attempt to roll back crucial protections for kids. It must be stopped.

The legislation (House Bill 2307 and Senate Bill 1387) would establish a new “Child Protection Board” within DSS, assigned specifically for oversight of religiously affiliated schools. Proponents have called it an “extra layer of protection” for kids.

But it sounds more like a buffer for religious schools from the state regulators who were given oversight authority with the 2021 reforms. There’s been no reasonable explanation offered for why that buffer is necessary. And there’s decades’ worth of data indicating it’s a dangerous arrangement for kids.

Though this new board would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, its membership, as mandated in the legislation, would be deliberately stacked against objective oversight.

At least six of its 10 members would be affiliated with faith-based entities, including at least one member who is in “a leadership position” at the Missouri Association of Child Care Agencies. That organization would also have “priority” for filling other board slots.

Unsurprisingly, the Missouri Association of Child Care Agencies is a key proponent of the legislation.

That organization was founded by several people who ran Christian boarding schools like the now-closed Agape Boarding School in southwestern Missouri — schools that were exposed in recent years for alleged abuse of students at the hands of staffers.

A series of investigations by The Kansas City Star starting in 2020 found that Missouri had for decades been a magnet for Christian boarding schools like Agape, drawn from other states by Missouri’s unusual hands-off policy of allowing them to operate without state oversight.

The result was years of alleged physical, sexual and psychological abuse at various facilities, some resulting in criminal charges. That situation is what prompted state legislators to pull such facilities under state oversight with the 2021 law.

The new legislation seeks to muddle that oversight, with the Missouri Association of Child Care Agencies given a specified role in the very text of the legislation.

Rep. Adam Schnelting, R-St. Charles, sponsor of the House version, said in February that the measure “allows child agencies and organizations that practice their Christian faith to continue practicing by self-regulation … (and) operate under their own set of standards.” Because that went so well under the previous system?

The Senate version is sponsored by Sen. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove. His commitment to child protection should be considered in the context of his infamous suggestion in legislative debate last year that 11- and 12-year-olds should be allowed to legally marry.

Facing pressure from critics in his own party, Rep. Schnelting on Tuesday attached an amendment to specify that, even with the new board in place, DSS would still have ultimate regulatory authority over Christian boarding schools.

If that’s the case, “Why do we need this?” asked Rep. Ingrid Burnett, D-Kansas City.

It’s a good question, but this legislation is worse than superfluous: It puts the health, safety and welfare of children at religious boarding schools under the direct control of the very kinds of entities that have failed to protect them in the past.

It also distances them from state regulators who, unlike those religious entities, have no motive to overlook dangerous situations or sweep staff infractions under the rug. This reverse-reform measure deserves quick defeat.