Reveal explores how different religious groups have taken advantage of their special freedoms to make money, skirt rules and hurt children. Credit: Anna Vignet for Reveal

UPDATE, Feb. 25, 2017: Reporter Amy Julia Harris followed up on what’s happened in Alabama since we first told you about the “God loophole,” a longstanding law that exempts more than 900 religious day cares from state oversight. 

You can now listen to the updated version of the original episode on this page.

UPDATE, April 12, 2016: Reporter Amy Julia Harris continued looking into problems at religious day cares after this episode aired and found abuse, neglect and even death. A link to her three-part series has been added in the Dig Deeper section.

When most people think of the First Amendment, they think of the freedom of speech – but that’s actually the second part of the clause. The first part states that all Americans have the freedom of religion.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”

So what does that mean, exactly? In America, we have the freedom to believe in whatever or whomever we want. According to the law, no one religion is supposed reign supreme – nor can anyone be prohibited from exercising their beliefs. But that phrase “free exercise” is a broad one. What happens when religious groups take advantage of these special freedoms to make money, skirt rules or hurt children?

This hour of Reveal explores the tricky territory of religious freedom and how different groups have exploited this loophole.

In our first segment, reporter Amy Julia Harris and producer Delaney Hall go to Alabama to follow the trail of a woman who’s been able to open almost a dozen problematic day care centers by claiming she’s a church.

In most states, all day care facilities are licensed and have to meet basic standards of safety and care for children. But in Alabama, there are virtually no rules for religious day cares. The state doesn’t even have the authority to investigate problems, let alone stop them. Alabama children have been beaten, locked in closets and wandered off alone because they were poorly supervised – and the day cares have stayed open.

In our second segment, we head to Nashville, Tennessee, with reporter Dan Weissmann to hear the story of how one man cited religious freedom to try to keep his sex club open.

And finally, reporter Abigail Keel takes us to Heartland, a privately owned Christian community in Missouri. The area is most well known for its school, and parents from all over the country send their children for a Bible-based Christian education. At Heartland, teachers don’t spare the rod – they use it. And the state can’t investigate because the school claims a religious exemption. So who’s making sure kids are safe?


  • Interactive: These 6 states have little to no regulation for religious day cares.
  • Read the latest: Religious day cares get freedom from oversight, with tragic results


Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.

Track list:

  • Camerado-Lightning, “True Game (Reveal show theme)” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Boards of Canada, “New Seeds” from “Tomorrow’s Harvest” (Warp)
  • Masayoshi Fujita, “Deers” from “Stories” (Flau)
  • Christopher Willits, “New Life” from “Tiger Flower Circle Sun” (Ghostly International)
  • KILN, “Boro” from “meadow:watt” (Ghostly International)
  • Ben Benjamin, “Fear of Silence” from “For Long Drives And Temporary Diversions” (Ghostly International)
  • Ben Benjamin, “The Is Why We Rock” from “For Long Drives And Temporary Diversions” (Ghostly International)
  • Jim Briggs, “Killer Drums” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Jim Briggs, “Bring on” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Ben Benjamin, “Hirsute Airports (Instrumental)” from “The Many Moods of Ben Benjamin Vol. 1.5” (Ghostly International)
  • Ben Benjamin, “Field Mice” (Ghostly International)
  • Philip Guyler, “Organic Wonderland” (Audio Network)
  • Richard Lacy/Richard Kimmings, “Ice Houses” (Audio Network)
  • David O’Brien/Paul Clarvis, “Water Carrier” (Audio Network)
  • Terry Devine-King/Tom Jenkins, “Skywriter” (Audio Network)


Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 – 00:14:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Al Letson: From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Let’s say you’re a baker in Missouri and a couple calls and wants to hire you to make a cake for their wedding. When they come into your shop, it turns out they’re a same-sex couple, and you don’t agree with gay marriage. Missouri is one of several states with the fight over gay marriage hasn’t died down. Lawmakers there are proposing a constitutional amendment to protect people who want to deny services to gay couples.
Legislation like this is springing up all over the country in response to last year’s Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage. Supporters, including some Republican presidential candidates, say it allows people to stay true to their morals. Critics say it’s a way to legalize discrimination. These fights are what some see as religious freedom are nothing new. They’ve been happening in the courts, in businesses, in schools and even in day cares.
In most states, all day cares are licensed and have to meet basic standards of safety and care for kids. In 16 states, church-run day cares face looser rules. In Alabama, there are virtually no rules for religious day cares. The state doesn’t even have the authority to investigate problems, let alone close them. Alabama kids have been beaten, locked in closets and wandered off alone because they were so poorly supervised and the day cares have stayed open.
Reporter Amy Julia Harris and producer Delaney Hall went to Alabama to follow the trail of a woman who’s opened almost a dozen problematic day cares by using the religious exemption.
Sarah Morales: This is my daughter Carlie. She’s talkative and it’s past her bedtime so she’s being funny.
Amy Harris: Sarah Lee Morales lives in a small and tidy trailer with her soon-to-be husband and her three kids in Loxley, Alabama. It’s a tight knit-town down near the gulf coast.
Delaney Hall : A few years ago, Sarah got a job with the day care in Loxley called A Step Ahead. It was run by a woman named Deborah Stokes. She told Sarah it was a Christian day care affiliated with Alpha and Omega Ministries.
Sarah Morales: I just assumed when you say Christian-based that’s going to be a little bit of a Bible study thrown in there and we’re going to do our morning prayer, our meal prayer, the types of things which you actually do at Bible school or a Christian school.
Delaney Hall : It turned out that Deborah was the founder of Alpha and Omega. As far as anyone knew, the ministry didn’t have a congregation or any regular church services. On the paperwork Deborah filed with the state, she’s identified as the pastor, but it’s unclear if she was ever ordained. Within a few days of starting at the day care, Sarah noticed that Deborah wasn’t acting much of a Christian.
Sarah Morales: She would scream at the kids for very, very stupid little bitty things.
Amy Harris: For peeing in their pants for example or for making too much noise. Sarah watched kids sit for hours in front of the TV. She saw kids left unsupervised because there wasn’t enough staff. Even if Deborah said she was running a Christian operation, Sarah didn’t believe it.
Sarah Morales: You can’t just go by what people say. You have to go by their actions. You can go up to somebody and quote word from the Bible but, hey, Satan knows the Bible, too. He can quote it for you word for word. Satan can.
Amy Harris: Then one day soon after Sarah started, she went into work and found Deborah dismantling the place.
Sarah Morales: They were all stacking up the chairs and stuff that the kids would sit in. I’ve looked at her and she was like, “We’re moving down the road to the warehouse.”
Delaney Hall : At this point, Sarah was already fed up with Deborah. She said she hadn’t been paid in over a month so she quit. As it turns out this hurry move was classic Deborah Stokes. Open up a day care, run it for a few months, rack up complaints from parents and employees, and then close up and move on. She’d been doing this for eight years.
Amy Harris: Before opening A Step Ahead in Loxley, Deborah operated at least six day cares in the Mobile area about an hour north. Several of those were temporary shut down by county officials for health and safety violations. Back in 2002, Deborah was even arrested and later convicted of child endangerment. She was banned from operating a day care for two years.
Deborah Stokes: Yes.
Amy Harris: Hi, may I please speak to Deborah Stokes?
Deborah Stokes: This is she.
Amy Harris: Hi, Deborah. My name is Amy Harris. [inaudible 00:04:43]. Our first day in Alabama, we gave Deborah a call. We asked her about all the run-in she had with the county health inspector in Mobile who followed up on more than 20 complaints against her. They range from hitting kids with wooden rulers to leaving infants in tiny rooms by themselves. Deborah said the health inspector had a vendetta against her.
Deborah Stokes: She said, “Look, let me tell you something, I will make up, I will lie, I will do whatever I had to do to keep you shut down because I hate it and I’m an atheist. I hate churches. I hate Christians. You’ll never open.”
Amy Harris: Deborah says a lot of people are out to get here including Sarah Morales, her former worker.
Deborah Stokes: I’m sick and tired of these little monsters, little girls making up these stories.
Amy Harris: She went on like this for about an hour. Finally, we asked if we could come by and see her later in the week and she agreed.
Yeah, you’ve given me a lot. Thank you so much for talking to me. I’ll see you on Thursday at six and we can just continue the conversation and just get a tour of your day care.
Deborah Stokes: All right. [inaudible 00:05:47] 6 o’clock.
Amy Harris: Okay. Sounds good. All right. Thanks so much, Debby. Bye.
In the meantime we continue to follow Deborah’s trail across lower Alabama. After leaving her daycare in Loxley, and then spending several months at a warehouse down the street, Deborah ended up in the nearby town of Foley. She opened up a day care on East Myrtle Street and racked up 16 complaints from workers and parents. She failed to pay rent again, and then moved onto a place called Kids’ Space in a small strip mall.
I think it’s a little bit further down.
Right between a pawnshop and a porn store.
It says adult gifts in big red letters on the yellow sign, lingerie, body jewelry and novelties.
In Alabama it’s illegal for a porn shop to open next to a day care. As it turns out, it’s not illegal for a day care to open next to a porn shop. That’s exactly what Deborah did. Then she set about hiring staff.
Kimberly : She didn’t ask my full name. She didn’t ask for an ID.
Delaney Hall : This is Kimberly Nicole Hindman, a former employee at Kids’ Space. She was hired by the director of Deborah’s day care.
Kimberly : She didn’t ask if I had felonies or if I’ve ever been in trouble. She didn’t ask if I like children. She said, “Can you start working right now?” I was like, “Yeah. Okay.”
Delaney Hall : Kimberly Nicole told us she was drawn to working at the day care partly because she grew up going to Christian schools.
Amy Harris: What was your Christian education like?
Kimberly : I always found that it was warm and welcoming. You’re kind to everyone. I guess it’s easy to take something like that and turn it into something ugly like Debby did.
Amy Harris: What do you mean by that?
Kimberly : Well, there was nothing kind, or warm, or welcoming about her whatsoever. She was not the kind of person I would trust alone with a glow stick, let alone a child.
Delaney Hall : Kimberly Nicole said the scene at Kids’ Space was often chaotic and that Deborah could get rough with the kids.
Kimberly : I saw her put a five-year-old boy in the high chair and leave him there for three hours with him screaming and rocking. She went over there and shook the [inaudible 00:07:59] at him and told him that [inaudible 00:08:00] get it.
Amy Harris: Finally, after four or five months, Kimberly Nicole just quit in the middle of the day. Then she enlisted the help of a friend to rally against Deborah. By this time, Deborah had moved her operations to the neighboring town of Spanish Fort. A handful of people protested on the sidewalk outside.
Speaker 7: She hits the kids with [inaudible 00:08:21], puts tape over little kids’ mouths. Put them in the high chair and [leaves them 00:08:25] for hours. I’ve witnessed it all.
Amy Harris: The protesters held signs and cars honked in support as they drove by.
Speaker 7: She forced him to lay down like literally forced him to lay down [inaudible 00:08:35].
Amy Harris: Despite the protest, nothing really happened. Deborah just kept going.
Delaney Hall : By this point, parents and angry staffers had been complaining about Deborah for more than 10 years but state regulators’ hands were tied. In Alabama, church day care centers can apply for a religious exemption.
Amy Harris: That means they don’t have to be regularly inspected. They aren’t required to supervise children, and they don’t have to follow any guidelines about how they discipline kids. It’s really just up to police to investigate if there are problems.
Delaney Hall : The police said they can’t do much either. Lieutenant David White, a police officer in Foley, is shuffling through a big stack of police reporters.
Lt. White: This is a report from a parent where a laptop was basically taken by one of the employees, one of the kid’s laptop.
Amy Harris: He says his department responded to over 20 incidents at Deborah’s two day cares in Foley. Some parents complain that the day care wasn’t doing criminal background checks on employees. Another parent said Deborah had stolen her daughter’s jacket in the middle of the winter. Most of the complaints were about fights between angry parents and defenseless staff members, but some are fights between the staff members and Deborah Stokes.
Lt. White: It appears that this was a report concerning a former employee who came in and was being very boisterous and aggressive. At one point, she stated, “I will throw this pickle jar at you.”
Amy Harris: She’s come in with a pickle jar in hand to may be threaten Debby?
Lt. White: I don’t know where she get the pickle jar from. There were some violent episodes there that they could have turned bad and possibly injured a child and that’s what we were trying to do is to keep these children safe.
Amy Harris: The cops took reports and showed up at the day care to break up the fights. Unless the problems were actually against the law, they were powerless. Once the chaos died down, Deborah could continue as usual.
Lt. White: With the exemption, she could open up basically anywhere and be okay with it. The law is unfortunate. It does not protect the kids. It allows for these type of day cares to open up without any restrictions, without any inspections.
Amy Harris: The frustrating thing for many city officials is that they can’t intervene either. John Koniar is the mayor of Foley. He served in the city government for a long time.
John Koniar: I served in the city council since 1980 so I qualify to be a [good old boy 00:11:15]. I’ve been around here a long time.
Amy Harris: When the Foley city council heard Deborah would be opening another day care in town, they voted to deny her a business license. Because of the religious exemption law, they couldn’t.
John Koniar: We were not happy about issuing a license because of her previous background information we got about her but we had no choice.
Delaney Hall : The battle over religious exemptions goes back to the 1970s. That’s when Alabama passed its first child care licensing law. It required that all day cares meet basics standards even the religious ones.
Amy Harris: Ministers didn’t like it. For a long time, they’ve been running day cares out of their churches without any state interference. Robin Mears is the executive director of the Alabama Christian Education Association.
Robin Mears: We don’t believe the state should have the power to license a church. Now, I know they’re going to tell you we’re licensing a day care. The day care under legal authority is a part of the church just like any other ministry, the ladies ministry, the Sunday school, anything else.
Delaney Hall : Robin joined a group of ministers who banded together to fight the licensing law. Finally, after years of lobbying, the state legislature passed the religious exemption in the early ’80s. Robin says state regulations are overrated. They can’t possibly fix every problem.
Robin Mears: When you have humans involved, there will be error, errors in judgment and there will be issues. Now, to think that all of a sudden you can license several hundred day cares in the state of Alabama is going to change the dynamic, it’s not true. It won’t happen. It won’t change the dynamic.
Speaker 11: FOCAL.
Amy Harris: Hi, there. We were here to speak with Sophia Bracy Harris.
Speaker 11: Okay.
Amy Harris: Church lobbyists may have won the battler over deregulating religious day cares but some people are still fighting. Sophia Bracy Harris runs the Federation of Child Care Centers of Alabama.
Sophia Harris: We license everything in this state from our vets, from our salons, any and everything. We exempt facilities when it comes to our children if they happen to say that they are religious. It undercuts the whole system for the health and safety of children.
Delaney Hall : Sophia says that most parents she works with aren’t even aware that church affiliated day cares don’t have to be licensed. Sometimes they just close their eyes to the fact that things seem a little off. They don’t have many options when it comes to child care and religious day cares are often cheaper.
Sophia Harris: It’s kind of like … My sense is that there are a lot-
Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 – 00:14:04]
Section 2 of 3          [00:14:00 – 00:28:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Speaker 1: It’s kind of like my sense is that there are a lot more children here than used to be here, but you know I’ve got to be at work tomorrow. They have no other choice.
Speaker 2: What scares you most about what’s going on in these religious unlicensed day cares?
Speaker 1: For me what scares me most is what we don’t know.
Speaker 2: What we do know is troubling. We reviewed 180 complaints made against unlicensed religious day cares in two Alabama counties and found they have a ton of problems. Children were hit, slapped, and locked in closets. At one daycare in Jefferson county parents said a teacher hit their son with a belt, leaving bruises.
Speaker 3: At another church daycare an infant was left in a room by himself and he fell out of his swing and hit his head. He was rushed to the hospital when he started having seizures. All of these day cares remained opened despite repeated complaints from parents over the past five years.
Speaker 2: Which brings us back to Deborah Stokes. You’ll remember that earlier in the week she’d agreed to talk to us.
Speaker 3: When we tried to contact her again we got a threatening email that made us think we might not be so welcome. “This is a formal demand,” she wrote to us. “Do not drive, walk, jump, swim, or hop on this property.” We still had important questions and wanted to hear her side.
Oh, I see some kids through the door.
Speaker 2: Since closing her daycare in Loxley and Kid’s Space in Foley, Deborah has moved to yet another town to open her latest operation; Little Nemos by the Bay in Spanish Fort, so we went there.
Speaker 3: Hi there. Hi. We’re looking for Deborah Stokes.
Speaker 4: She’s not here.
Speaker 3: She’s not here?
Speaker 4: No.
Speaker 3: Do you know when she’s going to be back?
Speaker 2: We went to the gas station next door and tried to call her, but it sounds busy.
Speaker 3: Maybe she’s making a call.
Speaker 2: Maybe she’s calling the cops. In fact, Deborah was calling the cops on us. A few minutes later three squad cars pulled up. An officer approached us.
Speaker 5: … Get their side of the story, what do y’all got going on?
Speaker 2: Okay, we’re journalists who are trying to talk to Debbie Stokes that we’re doing.
Speaker 5: Got’cha.
Speaker 2: I’m wondering, have you guys gotten a lot of police calls or complaints about this facility or daycare?
Speaker 5: I’m not sure how much of that I can disclose to you, but it’s not my first time meeting her if that answers your question at all.
Speaker 3: Thank you.
Speaker 2: All right, well thank you very much.
The squad cars pulled away.
Speaker 3: Since we left Alabama, we’ve requested all the available reports on Little Nemos. Here’s what we found: Building inspectors called Deborah’s latest daycare “Dirty” and “Kind of nasty” but said that technically she “Meets the requirements by a minor stretch.”
Speaker 2: The fire marshal says she’s technically okay too. There aren’t many police reports about Little Nemos in the short time it’s been up and running, but there was one from a former worker with a familiar sounding complaint. She said Deborah wasn’t paying her.
Al Letson: That was Amy Julia Harries and Delaney Hall. Just this past summer something happened in Alabama that maybe, just maybe, started to shift public opinion on this issue.
Speaker 7: More about a food poisoning outbreak at two daycare centers in Montgomery. You may recall the story. We now know what caused 86 children to get very sick.
Al Letson: Thirty of the children had to be hospitalized. The health department discovered bacterial contamination in the kitchens. It came out in reports that both were operated by a group called Sunny-side Daycare Centers. Both fell under the state’s religious exemption. For the first time in as long as she could remember Sophia Bracey Harris of the federation of child care centers of Alabama says people started questioning whether the exemption was a good thing.
Sophia: I heard legislators for the first time saying, “I think we need to look into this.” My thought was, “I don’t believe it.”
Al Letson: Still, change would be hard in Alabama for one reason.
Kimberly: We live in a Southern state, in the Bible belt, where religion trumps damn near everything else.
Al Letson: That’s Kimberly Nicole Hinman again; one of Deborah’s former employees.
Kimberly: Let’s stop worrying about church and start worrying about protecting our children, because this is getting ridiculous. I’m not against religion. I went to a Christian school. I believe in God, but you know what? I think God would understand.
Al Letson: Hundreds of children have been injured in religious day cares. A few have even died. We’re going to be investigation those stories in the coming weeks on our website, Be sure to keep an eye on it.
The issue of religious freedom can make for some strange bedfellows. In our next story we look at a sex club that said it was a church to avoid zoning regulations. I kid you not. You’re listening to “Reveal” from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX this is “Reveal”. I’m Al Letson. Religious freedom is one of the basic rights Americans count on. The first amendment says:
Speaker 10: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
Al Letson: What happens if those rights of religion are being exercised inside a sex club? I’m pretty sure the founding fathers never considered that, but that’s what one man in Nashville, Tennessee tried to do to keep his business open. We sent reporter Dan Wiesman to check it out.
Dan Wiesman: I meet Al Woods in the lobby of a hotel in Nashville where he’s throwing a swinger’s party. He’s a tall, skinny Vietnam vet. White hair, glasses, terrific posture. He moved here from Arkansas in 1980 with his second wife.
Al Woods: I met her at a swinger’s party in Little Rock. Her and her date had just met at a Church of Christ’s singles meeting in Little Rock. He said, “Well you know I’ve got this little bar that we could go.” She came to the bar and met me.
Dan Wiesman: After they moved to Nashville he took over a bar his sister had been running.
Al Woods: She didn’t make a go of it, and I on the marquee outside but “Swingers welcome” and that’s when people started coming in.
Dan Wiesman: By the late 1990’s his swinger’s club bought its own building in a crummy part of downtown, which eventually got less crummy. Restaurants and bars popped up. In 2014 a developer bought up most of the sex club’s block for condos, including the carpet shop across the street, which created a problem for the club.
Al Woods: We rented their parking lot. They sold their building, so we had no parking. That’s why we basically had to sell.
Dan Wiesman: The club sold its building and cleared a million bucks. Al found what he thought was a terrific new spot in a suburb called Madison. Vacant medical center, good price, big parking lot, lots of exam rooms for anyone who wanted a little privacy.
Al Woods: Hello Larry!
Larry Roberts: Hello Al!
Dan Wiesman: Al’s friend, Larry Roberts, has joined us. Larry is the club’s lawyer and a long time member of the swinger’s club. Larry remembers telling Al it was a terrible idea to locate in Madison, but Al insisted. He had done his homework on the zoning.
Larry Roberts: He said, “No.” Said, “This is a permissible use.” Said, “We have a print out.” Sure enough. He had a print out and it was a permissible use.
Dan Wiesman: This was technically a club, and clubs were okay. Larry was unconvinced.
Larry Roberts: I said, “You’re going to create a firestorm this close to Good Pasture.”
Dan Wiesman: Good Pasture. That’s Good Pasture Christian School; a fancy private school. Johnny Cash’s kids went there back in the day. It operates right across the street from the site that Al was looking at for his sex club. Al bought the place anyway.
Ricky Perry: Good morning. Good to see you this morning. I’m doing well.
Dan Wiesman: Ricky Perry is president of Good Pasture Christian School. We say hello outside his office and he introduces me to a wagon full of one year olds.
Ricky Perry: There out for a walk. They take the red buggies. This is Dan. How are you all doing this morning? Hi. Can you all say howdy this morning?
Speaker 15: Say hi!
Ricky Perry: Hi!
Dan Wiesman: He drives me around the campus, shows me how close the club’s building is. It’s just down the block from where parents will enter the auditorium where the school’s first graders will be performing that evening. Ricky Perry asks me a question.
Ricky Perry: If you had your own children, would you want a business like that in close proximity to them?
Dan Wiesman: He says he found out about the club’s purchase from an anonymous note. It was from someone who claimed to be a member of the swinger’s club.
Ricky Perry: They, as an adult, were okay with that kind of lifestyle, but they were very concerned this was going to be near a school. I thought, “Wow, I hadn’t heard of that one,” so I was surprised.
Dan Wiesman: He started making calls, looking at the angles.
Ricky Perry: We looked at everything we thought we could do and decided that zoning was legally a way to thwart that, so that’s what we tried.
Dan Wiesman: The Nashville Metro Council, which has jurisdiction over Madison, started considering a new ordinance to change the zoning code and block the club. A few months later the new zoning ordinance passed. Now, Al’s permits to renovate his building were dead. This is when Larry Roberts and Al Woods trotted out, what I think is fair to call, their hail Mary play. They said, “Oh wait! Did we say we’re a sex club? Ooh, sorry our bad. Actually, we’re a religious institution. They submitted a new permit application. Here’s how Al recalls it:
Al Woods: So we take the same plans in. All we do is rename the rooms on it, and made a sanctuary instead of a dance area.
Dan Wiesman: The two dungeons? One gets labelled the hand bell room; the other, the choir room. The décor stayed the same; painted black and red with wooden bars running to the ceiling. Larry Roberts says they even came up with a doctrine; a variation on the ten commandments.
Larry Roberts: Thou shall not lie. Thou shall not steal. Thou shall not have sex with any person other than thy spouse without the knowledge and consent of your spouse. How all these religious do-gooders could object to this, I don’t know.
Dan Wiesman: Also, they said no one would actually have sex on premises. Some swingers clubs do operate that way.
Larry Roberts: People might meet each other and go some place else, but then frankly, they do that at churches anyway.
Dan Wiesman: They said, “Call us the United Fellowship Center.” Al says they submitted the new paperwork shortly after the zoning ordinance passed.
Al Woods: That was on a Monday. They gave us a permit on Wednesday.
Dan Wiesman: Boom. Problem solved. The story hit the national media. Could a sex club really get away with calling itself a church? Legally it is very hard to regulate religious institutions. Nelson Teddy teaches constitutional law at Brooklyn Law School and has a PhD in Religious Studies. He says courts do tend to be very reluctant to weigh in on theological questions of any kind for two reasons. First, they don’t teach theology in law school.
Nelson Teddy: But second, and I think more deeply, courts believe it would be unfair that it would be in some ways wrong for the government to decide that a particular theology does or doesn’t require a particular action.
Dan Wiesman: That’s what religious pluralism is. If you say your religion requires you to go to sex parties, who am I to disagree? However, there is another big issue that courts do feel comfortable making judgement s about. Is a professed religious belief sincerely held? Courts routinely make judgments about sincerity. Call it credibility.
Nelson Teddy: When a witness comes before the court, courts feel that they’re able to judge the credibility of a witness. It’s something they do all the time.
Dan Wiesman: On that basis, Nelson Teddy told me, if he were the lawyer for the swinger’s club he probably would not have advised them to push the church idea too hard. I mean, it looks awfully convenient to suddenly become a religious institution when your back is against the wall. However, when I talked with Bill Herbert, Nashville’s top zoning administrator, he said the what’s a church issue is the million dollar question.
Bill Herbert: At the end of the day if they tell us that they are a church, we have to take their word for it until proven otherwise. It would have become an enforcement action if we had received information that what they were actually doing in the property once they opened was not a church.
Dan Wiesman: That was April 2015. It took the club a while to start making renovations, updating bathrooms for people with disabilities, adding some new electrical wiring for sounds and lights. It took a few months to get the work done, but eventually inspectors started coming around approving it. Then September 25th, the very last inspector came from the fire department. Al says the fire marshal just said, “No. No way. We’re not doing this. I’m not inspecting this place. It’s not a church. This place is obviously a swinger’s club.”
Al Woods: I said, “Well it’s a building. Right now your job is to approve it if it’s safe or not safe.” He says, “This is above my pay-grade. I’m not getting involved in this.”
Dan Wiesman: I called the fire inspector Darrel Rogan. He wouldn’t talk on tape, and he wouldn’t discuss what was said, but he did confirm he went to the site September 25th and he didn’t do the inspection. The place was permitted as a church…
Section 2 of 3          [00:14:00 – 00:28:04]
Section 3 of 3          [00:28:00 – 00:51:01] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Dan: [Tember 00:28:00] 25th, and he didn’t do the inspection. The place would permitted as a church, he told me. Then his view, his place wasn’t a church. Deciding whether the building was a church or not a church was up to the Zoning Director, Bill Herbert, would already approve the plans. Al Woods and Larry Roberts didn’t pushed to get the inspection in the fellowship center opened as planned. Instead, what they did was to advertise their fully renovated building for rent. Specifically, to be used as a church.
Speaker 2: [inaudible 00:28:30].
Dan: Curtis Jenkins, as pastor of the Church of His Enduring Grace. His family helps out. In October, his brother was scouting new locations on Craigslist and saw the plugs building.
Speaker 3: It was almost too good to be true, just like that. Somebody’s trying to run a scam or something like that.
Dan: A few days later, Alwoods gave them a tour.
Speaker 2: Remember the [inaudible 00:28:54].
Speaker 4: Well? This is the beginning of a beginning.
Dan: That’s Curtis’ mom or [Alee 00:29:02] Jenkins. He calls her the church is oversee. She’s video taping the whole thing. They signed a 3-year lease for $2,000 a month. When I visited on a Sunday morning at early December, they were getting the place ready to hold services. Tweaking the sound system, putting up decorations. The walls were still painted the kind of model black, and praying.
Speaker 2: You are worthy God. Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah. Oh, glory God.
Dan: The Church of His Enduring Grace settled in, and plans for the sex club to operate at this location as the fellowship center appeared to be co-put. Why didn’t Al Woods push for that fire inspection and keep trying to open his haven for swingers? He won’t exactly say, and sometimes he makes it sound like the whole church idea had been a joke. I asked Larry Roberts.
Larry: I think Al was just out of money. I know that his water was disconnected at one time.
Dan: There wasn’t any revenue coming in. Between buying the new place and all the repairs, he’d spent million bucks he gotten from selling the old building. Even with no mortgage, the new building carried some big costs. Taxes and insurance run about $2,000 a month. Al used to have other businesses besides the club. Magazines for swingers, a strip club, a line of amateur porn videos back when VHS was a thing.
Al W.: I’ve made money, I’ve lost money. Made a lot of money when the 900 numbers were popular. Made a bunch of big bad investments with people.
Dan: Eventually, illness forced him to retire.
Al W.: Since I got cancer, I haven’t been that active for the last six years, I guess now.
Dan: He says he’s comfortable living on a social security and his VA pension, but he can’t carry the building too. Pushing forward with the swinger’s church idea would’ve run into another problem.
Speaker 7: Wait a minute, let me [inaudible 00:30:54].
Dan: Even if they had fought the Zoning battle and won, even if they had reopened. Another important group would’ve been unhappy about the idea of the club calling itself a religious institution members. Al still purposes parties, a couple of times a month at local hotels, I went to one. I met a couple who wouldn’t give me their names. They told me they’d been married for 39 years. He said, “He can’t have sex because of an injury.” and the club had been an accommodation. They also told me that the idea of the club calling itself a church, had completely rob them the wrong way.
Speaker 8: I’m not comfortable with that terminology. Because church is important to you.
Speaker 9: Yes, it is.
Speaker 8: [crosstalk 00:31:35] work out is important to me, yes. [inaudible 00:31:38] a place to have sex as a church is wrong.
Speaker 9: Yes it is, very wrong.
Dan: You didn’t think if they’ve run through with that, you might have to go some place else?
Speaker 8: Sure.
Speaker 9: Sure, I wouldn’t have gone in.
Dan: The party that night felt sad. There weren’t a lot of people there. Not a lot of mixing, very little dancing. One couple called in lame, not in a mean way, more like a lament. It was like crashing a poorly attended wake. The next day, I asked Al Woods how disappointed he is by the whole episode.
Al W.: Slight. Can’t do anything about it, you just keep going. Not for the religious reason, but things happen for a reason sometimes. It makes you either stronger or doesn’t.
Dan: Later, I called Al to ask him another question. What about the people like that couple at the end of the party who thought it was just wrong to call it sex club at church. He said, “I don’t care if I call it a bar or church or humane society or whatever. I need the income. For now, he’s getting that income in the form of rent. From the Church of His Enduring Grace.
Al L.: That story was a reporter Dan Weisman. We want to remind you that you can listen to Reveal whenever you want. You can subscribe to our podcast at We’ll have more from the frontlines of the religious freedom debate when we come back. This is Reveal. From the Center For Investigative Reporting and PRS. From the Center For Investigative Reporting and PRS, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. If you drive about 85 miles northeast of Columbia, Missouri. Along with two lane highway lying with corn and soy bean fields across the hill. Then you’ll see it, Heartland. A privately owned Christian Community in the middle of nowhere, but it has its own medical center, and airport, a dairy, and a zoo. At Heartland’s most famous feature is a school. Parents from all over the country sends their kids there for Christian bible based education. They know that teachers there don’t spare the rod. For some, that’s a selling point. The other thing about the Heartland School, because it claims a religious exemptions, the state cannon inspected. Whose keeping tabs on the school and making sure the kids are safe? Abigail Keil takes us there to find out.
Abigail: Here’s what Heartland’s website says. If you desire school for your children where God is honored, the bible is revered as the standard for life, and excellence is pursued. Consider Heartland Christian Academy. Sara Burton’s parents sent her there when she was 14 years old, and as she puts it, pretty out of control.
Sara: Just the things that I put myself through. I’d run away so much that I got to the point where my friends wouldn’t even [house 00:34:42] me. I would sleep sometimes in the park, sometimes in the woods.
Abigail: Sara’s parents sent her to Heartland for the structure, not the religion. She ended up finding some thing she said she needed.
Sara: I didn’t have a relationship with my mom until I came here, now we have a great relationship. When you’re so selfish and so into what you’re doing, you don’t really have time to have relationships with people. If you do have relationships with people, you’re just using them in that relationship.
Abigail: It was at Heartland that Sara found Jesus.
Sara: Of course, Jesus is the forefront of everything. Beside stable environment, I don’t even know what Heartland had to offer besides Jesus. I mean, He is the answer to all things, He saved me, He saved my family, He restored my family. He gave me opportunity.
Abigail: Sara isn’t alone. We spoke with half a dozen former students at Heartland who said the school gave them the stability and structure to break bad habits. Along with its emphasis on the bible, Heartland has the style of discipline and punishment that some people say crosses the line. Even in Missouri, one of 19 states that allows school to spank or hit students.
Charles: Hi there.
Speaker 14: Hello.
Charles: How are you?
Speaker 14: Pleasure to meet you.
Abigail: Charles Sharpe, or Pastor Charlie is the founder and current leader of Heartland.
Charles: We try everything. Spanking is the last resort. When it comes down to that, if you can’t get a kid to do what you tell them, what would you do?
Abigail: Charles Sharpe founded Ozark National Life Insurance in Kansas City, Missouri in 1964. He’s 88 years old, and still president of the company. In 1995, Sharpe found what he says was his real calling. Everyone at Heartland knows the story. He was driving along a country road, and says he heard the voice of God.
Charles: Then the Lord said to me, “Now, you can hear me. It’s me, I’m talking to you. I want you to build a place for kids.”
Abigail: Pastor Charlie’s mission at Heartland is to provide the kind of instruction that he believes will put youth on the right path. To combat the problems, he seize with how society deals with children.
Charles: Why do you think today our juvenile places are packed? The kids are wonderful. They just don’t have anybody to raise them. They don’t have anybody to teach them, but all of those problems would be solved if we just knew God.
Abigail: Pastor Charlie says Heartland does undeniable good in changing people’s lives. He defends the strict discipline at the school.
Charles: We have no abuse here. There is none, we have no zero tolerance.
Abigail: Some former students disagree. Lea Devough [inaudible 00:37:16] was a student from 2003 to 2005. She lives in Alaska now, and spoke with us on Skype about the practice called “Swatting.”
Lea: I shaved my armpits once, that was the first time I got swats.
Abigail: Swats are a regular form of discipline at Heartland. You bend over and hold the edge of a chair, and a staff member swats you with a wooden paddle.
Lea: I know people wouldn’t say corporal, most people will say corporal punishment or swatting is abuse, but when you’re getting … We would get swats from men in their 30’s and it’s hard to talk about just because you would … They would do it for nothing at all. I know people, girls, that they would get the 10 swats for a week straight just for one thing that they did wrong.
Abigail: One incident Lea says went too far.
Lea: The guy hit me so hard that I fell forward and moved my shoulder weird and it dislocated. Popped right out of the place, and for the next few days, I can’t remember how many exactly, my whole arm, it was just so much pain and it was swollen, and just like it was turning blue.
Abigail: Lea says she saw a doctor after this incident, which her sister confirmed. Punishments at the school aren’t just physical, Maya Swantsen’s parents sent her to Heartland in 2001 when she was 9 years old. She lived there for 7 years.
Maya: If they did something really bad, they would obviously put the girls in the orange suit, or an ugly dress, with a sign that said, “Talk Out.” That’s a way to really humiliate somebody.
Abigail: The orange suits are prison styled jumpsuits, that students must wear when they broken a rule. The staff says it helps them spot children trying to run away after getting in trouble. When a student wears the “Talk Out” sign, they aren’t allowed to speak unless directed to by staff. Heartland Christian Academy operated from 1995 until 2001, without oversight or interference from local authorities. As a religious school, Heartland is exempt from licensing and inspection. Plus, they have this support of the families whose children they were disciplining. In 2001, the separation between church and state started to crack. That’s because of what came to be called the manure pit incident. Several students at Heartland were directed to stand in cow manure as punishment for misbehaving. Someone called the child abuse hotline, and the state brought criminal charges against five Heartland staff members. Three of them were acquitted, and charges were dropped against the other two.
A jury said the incident was just farm labor at a girl’s school. Six months later, a staff member punctured a student’s eardrum during an altercation. Soon after, authorities got a warrant to raid Heartland Christian Academy. Maya Swantsen was one of the children taken in the raid, and later returned to the school by her family.
Maya: October 30th is when the juvenile officers, I don’t know how many, but there was just way too many that came unexpectedly and went in and took a 115 students out. For me, it was very, I was 9-years old, it was very chaotic.
Speaker 17: I said, “We’re going to get away.” [inaudible 00:40:51].
Abigail: Heartland’s staff were video taping during the raid. You can see state officers escorting children out of the school, loading them on to school buses. Students are yelling, and resisting. Staff members are arguing with the officers evacuating the school. Heartland and a group of parents sued state authorities, saying that removing the students was rash and harmful. Judge E. Richard Weber presided over the federal law suit. The video tape was used as evidence in the trial, and it made a big impression on the judge.
Judge Weber: It was a [inaudible 00:41:26], they went in and rounded the kids up. There was this one young girl who braised herself at the door of the bus, and refused to get in. This 250 pound office who got behind her and just pushed her, and pushed her, and she was screaming. Everybody in the bus was screaming. It was chaotic. It was so unlike any kind of practice anyone would have that believed in the constitution or related in fairness.
Abigail: Could you walk me through exactly what you ruled and the reasoning behind it?
Judge Weber: If found the violation of the fourth amendment that there was illegal seizure. I found that the juvenile officers, the second circuit and the 41st circuit had conspired to violate the constitutional rights of the children.
Abigail: Judge Weber said that the system isn’t flawed. Accusation like the eardrum incident were investigated, and evidence of abuse just didn’t surface. Other parents filed lawsuits too, and the state had to pay Heartland’s $800,000 legal fees. When I asked the judge if there was anything else I should know about the case, he said this.
Judge Weber: I think the lesson, one of the many lessons I learned in the case was that they, Mr. Sharpe and his wife created that organization for laudable reasons. They’ve had amazing success in improving the lives of a lot of people that all of the horrors for which they were suspected of causing didn’t occur. This is a fellow who did well in private business, and went out and had a dream, and part of the American dream to start a business or an organization that helps people.
Abigail: Heartland does an example of how the tensions between public and private interests are wrapped up with religion. The state can’t interfere because it’s a Christian school. Simply put, it’s their religious freedom. Matt Frank is a deputy metro editor for the St. Louis Post Dispatch. He reported on Heartland shortly after the raid.
Matt: In Missouri, it’s always been the case that parents and faith-based groups are considered far more expert on the welfare of youth and children than the government is. I knew the greater reason why we don’t seem where regulation of those entities.
Abigail: Missouri requires most childcare facilities and residential care facilities to be at minimum inspected for health and safety. Religious institutions like Heartland can claim an exemption from being inspected. In Missouri, all they even have to do is claim it.
Speaker 20: If you believe that you have this faith exemption as a facility, that’s good enough. You don’t have to apply to verify that that’s the case.
Abigail: Heartland lies at the intersection of three counties. Jules Decoster is the prosecutor for one of those, Louis County. Where the manure pit incident took place.
Jules: Even figural religion doesn’t give you the ability to violate the law without repercussion. We’re talking about educating children or disciplining children, it seems to me like somebody needs to have some form of supervision.
Abigail: It’s not that simple. Because regulating Heartland also means regulating what choices parents are allowed to make about their own children.
Candy: It’s a fundamental values conflict for us.
Abigail: Candy Ivesen is a social work professor at the University of Missouri. She says changing laws that deal with child welfare and exemptions is challenging.
Candy: This is the state intruding in the unit, the family, that we consider most sacrosanct. It is a policy area that is very, very newanst and difficult.
Abigail: In Missouri, there’s a lot of political support for parental rights and religious freedom. According to the Missouri Ethics Commission, Charles Sharpe, his wife Lori, their business associates, and their corporations have donated just under a million dollars to political candidates and organizations since 2002. Sharpe’s company had this two lobbyists. One is the former chairman of the Missouri republican party. The last time Missouri’s lawmakers took on child welfare law in 2004, Sharpe’s interests were represented. Matt Frank says that 2001 raid at Heartland and its expensive legal aftermath makes changing child welfare laws difficult today. The states failure makes Missouri’s lawmakers less likely to want to get involved with private religious facilities.
Matt: I think that the raid, and the aftermath of the raid continued to exert their influence over the legislative process, culturally in the legislature it’s just not part of their thinking to want to regulate in this area.
Abigail: There haven’t been any arrest or prosecutions at Heartland over discipline since the raid. The school still gives children’s swats. Lea Devough Scribner, the student who told us about her shoulder being dislocated says her mother removed her from Heartland soon after in 2005. We asked Lea what she would say now to the school’s founder Charles Sharpe about the discipline at Heartland.
Lea: I would just say that they … he doesn’t know the damage that he’s done.
Abigail: Even Pastor Charlie recognizes his program isn’t ideal for everyone.
Charles: I’m sure that there’s kids that look like they had enraged parents, because they didn’t want to change. It is a terrible place for person that won’t change. This is right close to hell, about as close as you can get. Because we want them to know what hell is going to be like when they get there. If you don’t want to change, you don’t want to come here.
Abigail: Heartland does continue to thrive in the past decade, and enrollment at the school has grown. Just before we went to air, we called the school and asked about the current policies on physical punishment. They declined to comment, but former students we spoke with said the rules state that students shouldn’t be swatted by staff members of the opposite gender, and no punishments should include more than ten swats per day.
Al L.: Our story on Heartland’s produced by Abigail Kiel, special thanks to Ryan from New [inaudible 00:47:54] at KBIA, where version of the story originally aired. To Earwolf Studios from New York. Finally, this hour, one last story about religious freedom. As the issue lands on a Rabbi’s doorstep.
Rabbi Yosef: This gentleman came to the door and I said, “We’ve been given information that you will be having meetings in your house.”
Al L.: That’s Rabbi Yosef Conicoff, in 2000, he and his family had just moved into their home in the Orlando suburb. His family practices a type of Judaism called Habad. It’s a very social form of Judaism and so, often they have guest at their house. The county said that violated zoning rules against using your home as a place of worship. They would send code enforcement officers to see what was going on.
Rabbi Yosef: The first official notice we got was on a Jewish holiday called Purim. The wife called me and she said, “You got to come home right away, there’s officers here and he’s like threatening. He’s really tough, and he gave us a citation.” I rushed home, and then I saw the notice and the notice said we’re in violation for operating a synagogue or services affiliated with a synagogue and/or church synagogue. The county really didn’t want to let go. What started first with undercover surveillance, so they would have people hiding in the trees literally taking pictures.
Al L.: Rabbi Conicoff says the county documented everything. Eventually they took the Conicoff’s to court and the legal battle dragged on for years. All the while the Conicoff’s are racking up fines and fees.
Rabbi Yosef: They considered our house to be in violation. Which means there’s a fine everyday, doesn’t matter if I was on vacation. We just automatically get a fine everyday. Ultimately, it was somewhere around 80,000.
Al L.: The Conicoff’s finally won their battle in courts, in this case their rights to have people come into their house for worship trump the neighborhood zoning laws. The line between religious freedoms and secular laws is a difficult one. It’s being redrawn everyday. For more on what you just heard, plus our latest stories go to Join our conversations on Facebook or Twitter. Delaney Hall was our lead producer for this episode, and this was one of the last shows she worked on before leaving us. We missed you Delaney, and really specifically, I miss you. You’re one of the best producers I’ve ever worked with. We wish you all the best at your new post at 99 Percent Invisible.
Today’s show was edited by Deb Jorge. Our theme music today was from Commorodo Lighting. Support for Reveal’s provided by the Viva and David Logan Foundation. The Ford Foundation, the John D and Katherine Team McArthur Foundation, the John S, and James L Night Foundation and the Ethics in Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a coproduction of Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letsin, and remember there is always more to the story.
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Julia B. Chan worked at The Center for Investigative Reporting until June, 2017. Julia B. Chan is a producer and the digital editor for Reveal's national public radio program. She’s the voice of Reveal online and manages the production and curation of digital story assets that are sent to more than 200 stations across the country. Previously, Chan helped The Center for Investigative Reporting launch YouTube’s first investigative news channel, The I Files, and led engagement strategies – online and off – for multimedia projects. She oversaw communications, worked to better connect CIR’s work with a bigger audience and developed creative content and collaborations to garner conversation and impact.

Before joining CIR, Chan worked as a Web editor and reporter at the San Francisco Examiner. She managed the newspaper’s digital strategy and orchestrated its first foray into social media and online engagement. A rare San Francisco native, she studied broadcasting at San Francisco State University, focusing on audio production and recording. Chan is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.