In a recent letter to Congress, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) highlighted some of their policy positions for lawmakers, offering what they called “moral principles for consideration.” This was not unusual, as the organization has frequently penned letters to Congress when legislation has been prepared or debated. What did stand out in this case, however, was a curious subsection suggesting that the Build Back Better Act’s expansion of child care and pre-K would somehow exclude faith-based child care providers.
The authors of the letter are concerned with what they interpret as two separate, but related, issues: 1) that faith-based child care providers would be considered “recipients of federal financial assistance” and thus, among other things, not able to teach religious curricula; and 2) that faith-based providers would be subject to what the authors refer to as “new and troubling compliance obligations.” Fortunately, this interpretation of the bill is not correct.
It would be shocking if policymakers implemented design choices that burdened faith-based providers, as faith-based child care is a vitally important part of the current child care system. A 2020 survey found that approximately 16 percent of working-parent households enrolled their children in center-based care affiliated with a faith organization. That’s why the Build Back Better Act has language that explicitly includes subsidies for faith-based programs: “Nothing shall preclude the use of such certificates for sectarian child care services if freely chosen by the parent.” Any licensed faith-based provider will be eligible to participate in the new child care program, just as they are under current policy.
Some other important facts regarding participation include the following:
- Child care dollars from the Build Back Better Act would count as indirect federal financial assistance, just as under current child care policy. Faith-based programs would be able to participate in the same way as any other child care provider.
- Faith-based providers would be able to participate in both the child care and the mixed-delivery pre-K program.
- Faith-based providers would still be able to teach religious curricula, as the Build Back Better Act does not dictate curricula.
- Faith-based providers would be eligible for facilities grants to expand or improve their classrooms or play areas; the only limitation is that funds cannot be used for facilities that are primarily for sectarian instruction or religious worship. For example, renovating a sanctuary would not be allowed, but building a playground would be. Many religious institutions celebrate these stipulations as allowing them to still participate in federal programs without infringing upon the separation of church and state.
The “new and troubling compliance obligations” that the USCCB mentions are also based on an inaccurate interpretation of the legislation. It is not entirely clear what this phrase refers to, but the news media has interpreted it to mean the nondiscrimination provisions cited in the bill. The language in the bill, however, is similar to existing nondiscrimination provisions with which faith-based providers already comply. The Build Back Better Act does not require them to meet any additional compliance obligations or to make any changes to the religious tenets of their programs. The bill also cites existing federal civil rights laws rather than creating new mandates, so faith-based providers would remain eligible for existing religious exemptions from certain federal anti-discrimination laws. For example, faith-based providers would not be required to build new entrances or become fully ADA compliant, as some critics of the bill have suggested.
A 2020 survey found that approximately 16 percent of working-parent households enrolled their children in center-based care affiliated with a faith organization.
Bipartisan Policy Center, "Examining the Role of Faith-Based Child Care" (2021).
Equitably expanding access to child care does not conflict with the mission of faith-based child care providers
Existing nondiscrimination statutes serve to ensure that all eligible children and their families can access child care without discrimination based on race, sex, disability, and religion or belief. This is squarely in line with one of the primary goals of the Build Back Better Act: to increase child care access for children and families that have been historically excluded. It is also squarely in line with the goals of religious organizations, which have long expressed similar moral cases for helping children and families.
One of the communities for which the Build Back Better Act’s child care provisions specifically intend to expand access is the disability community. 1 in 8 children ages 3 to 5 enrolled in early education programs have some significant disability or developmental delay, and families with disabled children face significant barriers to accessing affordable child care. In a 2016 Early Childhood Program Participation Survey (ECPP), 1 in 3 parents of disabled children reported facing “at least some difficulty finding care.” Parents of disabled children report job disruptions at three times the rate of parents of nondisabled children. The Build Back Better Act provides opportunities to increase worker wages and training to ensure that child care providers can provide developmentally appropriate care to all children, including disabled children. Faith-based child care providers should view this as an opportunity to expand care to some of the most underserved members of their communities.
Faith-based child care providers engage in their work because they believe in caring for children and families. They provide a lifeline of support to young parents, supportive community relationships, and care environments that may reflect families’ values and practices. It is frankly unimaginable that any faith-based child care provider would be interested in turning a child away because of a disability—and yet, this is one of the key provisions from which these groups purportedly seek to be newly exempted. Similarly, it is in direct conflict with the mission of most child care providers to turn a child away because of their race, sex, religion, or any other protected characteristics.
The Union for Reform Judaism, which maintains a network of 275 early childhood education centers across the country, has expressly called on Congress to pass the child care provisions of the Build Back Better Act, including its nondiscrimination provisions: “[T]axpayer funds should never be used to discriminate within government-supported programs. … No one should be denied access to federally funded childcare and education programs because of their religion or identity.” The Union for Reform Judaism is among numerous, diverse religious organizations that have voiced strong support for the Build Back Better Act, including and especially its child care provisions.
Finally, an accessible child care system must take into account that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, same-sex couples with children are more likely than different-sex couples to have both partners working. Unfortunately, LGBTQI+ people and their families face widespread discrimination, with more than 1 in 3 reporting facing discrimination in the year prior, according to a 2020 Center for American Progress survey. Nearly 20 percent of LGBTQI+ people reported not seeking out services that they or their families needed in an attempt to avoid the trauma of discrimination. The Build Back Better Act’s investments in child care and universal pre-K are extremely important for ensuring that all families, including LGBTQI+ families, can access child care.
The Build Back Better Act’s transformational investments in child care and universal pre-K are focused on expanding supply so that parents have more quality child care options. For many families, this will mean finding a faith-based provider that represents the values they seek to instill in their children. For generations, faith-based organizations have played an important role in the care and early education of children. The Build Back Better Act is designed to leverage their role so that all families can find the child care options that are right for them.
The author would like to thank Mia Ives-Rublee, Maggie Siddiqi, Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, and Sharita Gruberg for their immense contributions to the analysis of the legislative text and the writing of this column.