In 16 states, religious day cares are exempt from at least some regulations. Credit: Scott Pham/Reveal

Alabama lawmakers introduced a landmark bill today to abolish the “God loophole,” a longstanding law that exempts more than 900 religious day cares from state oversight.

The so-called Child Care Safety Act, sponsored by a Republican and a Democratic lawmaker, would require all day cares in Alabama to be licensed and inspected, and they would have to meet basic safety standards such as child-to-staff ratios and worker training.

“Health and safety licensing and inspections of all child care in Alabama is a common-sense protection, and I couldn’t be more proud to stand with my colleagues from both sides of the aisle on this critical children’s issue,” said Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, a lead sponsor of the bill. “If we as a state can require restaurants, tattoo parlors and hair salons to be licensed, then why on earth would we not expect the same oversight for those programs and facilities caring for children?”

Sixteen states exempt faith-based day cares from at least some standard licensing rules, but no state’s exemptions are more sweeping that Alabama’s. Churches there don’t have to train workers, meet minimum staff-to-child radios or be inspected regularly. State child care officials also are barred from investigating any complaints at religious facilities.

Last year, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting exposed how religious freedoms may come at a steep price for children. Across the country, we found that dozens of parents reported that their children were punched, slapped and locked in closets at unlicensed religious facilities in recent years. In Alabama, one woman ran at least a dozen dangerous day cares out of reach of regulators by declaring herself a church, even though she had no services or congregation. And secular providers shut down for putting children at risk were able to reopen by rebranding themselves as religious entities.

Melanie Bridgeforth, executive director of the advocacy group VOICES for Alabama’s Children, said Warren’s bill is a common-sense way to protect children. Hers and other advocacy groups worked for months with child care providers, faith leaders and lawmakers to come up with the legislation. She called it her top legislative priority this year.

“There are a lot of issues that are polarizing right now, but this isn’t one of them,” Bridgeforth said. “This is about keeping children safe. There’s support on both sides of the aisle for this.”

Last year, Democratic Rep. Patricia Todd introduced a similar bill to overturn Alabama’s religious exemption. That bill, which was introduced days before the end of the legislative session and did not pass, was meant to raise awareness about the dangers of unlicensed day cares.

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

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.