The religious freedom loophole

Religious freedom is one of the basic rights guaranteed to Americans in the Constitution. But just how far should that freedom extend?

Across the country, lawmakers have carved out exemptions from common rules for religious groups, ranging from immigration to land use. According to an analysis by The New York Times, more than 200 exemptions for religious groups were folded into congressional legislation from 1989 to 2006.  

These loopholes are meant to give church groups the freedom to practice their religion without government interference. But religious exemptions also can lead to problems, as we explore in our latest episode: Scam artists who claim to be religious have taken advantage of these exemptions, and children have been hurt.

Here are a few troubling examples of these exemptions, several of which you can hear about in this week’s episode of Reveal.

Some states exempt religious day cares from licensing rules

In 16 states, religious day care facilities are exempt from some rules designed to protect children. At licensed day cares, all workers must be trained on child safety and must follow specific child-to-staff ratios. But six states give religious day cares a pass from some of these rules, allowing workers with no training and no staffing requirements to care for children.

Our interactive map offers a state-by-state breakdown (click the image below for the full version):

Credit: Scott Pham/Reveal

Many of these church day cares aren’t inspected unless parents complain – and in a few states, regulators can’t even investigate allegations regarding inadequate supervision or overzealous discipline because those decisions are considered church matters. Hundreds of children have been injured and a few have died in preventable ways at the thousands of religious, unlicensed day cares around the country.

In our new episode, you’ll hear one example of how a woman who was jailed for child endangerment started her own church and continued to run dangerous day care facilities free of oversight.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We’re continuing to investigate the hazards at religious day cares in the coming weeks, so sign up for our newsletter to make sure you don’t miss the stories.

Corporal punishment is allowed in many religious schools

While physical punishment is banned in most public schools around the country, many private religious schools and residential care facilities are free to hit, paddle and spank children in accordance with their religious beliefs.

On this week’s episode, reporter Abigail Keel looks at Heartland, a Christian school in Missouri, where children were punched, hit so hard that they dislocated shoulders, and were forced to stand in cow manure pits as punishment.

The state raided and evacuated children from the facility in 2001 over concerns for child safety, but a judge ultimately ruled that the officials went too far. Today, Heartland can physically discipline children according to their religious beliefs.

Employment discrimination laws don’t apply to religious groups

Thanks to a legal doctrine called the “ministerial exception,” religious groups are exempted from anti-discrimination rules in hiring and firing.

In a case that made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, a religious school was allowed to fire a teacher in 2004 after she was diagnosed with narcolepsy – which the woman claimed was a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In a unanimous decision in 2012, the high court said the teacher qualified as a minister, so standard employment discrimination laws didn’t apply.

Religious leaders in many states can withhold info on child abuse

Clergy are mandated to report child abuse in 45 states, but 32 of those states have a loophole called “clergy-penitent privilege.” These exceptions allow them to withhold information from authorities if they hear about abuse from members of their congregation who are looking for spiritual advice.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses are currently fighting lawsuits over failing to report child sex abuse.

Churches can often circumvent zoning rules

In 2000, Congress passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which carved out protections for churches and gave religious groups tools to legally challenge local zoning requirements.

Since then, many religious groups have looked to the law to fight zoning rules, including a Hindu congregation that wanted to expand its temple on a busy highway in New Jersey and a Christian church that sought to double its facility size in Colorado, according to The New York Times.

In a case we look at on this week’s episode, a sex club in Tennessee tried to call itself a church to get around local zoning requirements.

Parents can cite religion to not vaccinate their kids

Forty-six states allow parents to not vaccinate their children if doing so goes against their religious beliefs. Pew Research Center created a map of the vaccine exemptions:

These religious exemptions gained national attention last year after a measles outbreak that started in California and spread to a handful of other states in December 2014 raised the question: Should parents have the option of not vaccinating their children and potentially putting other kids at risk?

Listen to our new episode for a deeper look at some of these issues. And be sure to subscribe to our newsletter so you can get updates on our upcoming investigations into religions exemptions.

Amy Julia Harris can be reached at Follow her on Twitter: @amyjharris.

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Amy Julia Harris

Amy Julia Harris is a reporter for Reveal, covering vulnerable communities. She and Reveal reporter Shoshana Walter exposed how courts across the country are sending defendants to rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Their work was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting and won a Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists. It also led to four government investigations, including two criminal probes and four federal class-action lawsuits alleging slavery and fraud.

Harris was a Livingston Award for Young Journalists finalist for her investigation into the lack of government oversight of religious-based day cares, which led to tragedies for children in Alabama and elsewhere. In a previous project for Reveal, she uncovered widespread squalor in a public housing complex in the San Francisco Bay Area and traced it back to mismanagement and fraud in the troubled public housing agency.

Before joining Reveal, Harris was an education reporter at The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. She has also written for The Seattle Times, Half Moon Bay Review, and Campaigns and Elections Politics Magazine.