The problem with fact-checking political lies is that it usually happens too late, especially when it comes to conservative lies that fester in an insular media universe. By the time people on the outside notice, no amount of reporting can dislodge them.
But this is one of those rare moments when you can glimpse a lie in its infancy, before it’s taken hold.
The subject of the false claim is a Democratic early childhood initiative designed to make decent, affordable child care available to all Americans who want it. To hear some conservatives tell it, churches and other religious organizations offering child care couldn’t be part of the program.
This is simply not true.
What The Text Says
The initiative is part of the “Build Back Better” legislation that President Joe Biden and Democratic leaders are trying to get through Congress this fall.
The primary way it would help families would be through subsidies, which families could use to defray their child care costs. And a passage on Page 163 of the bill states: “Nothing in this section shall preclude the use of such [subsidies] for sectarian child care services if freely chosen by the parent.”
This passage is not especially hard to spot. It is the third full sentence of the legislation’s child care section. But several conservatives seem to have missed it.
“If you want to send your children to a church day care or a pre-K program, again, the Democrats offer you nothing,” Conn Carroll, Commentary editor at The Washington Examiner, wrote last week.
“Democrats are ending decades-old, bipartisan protections for religious preschools and child care centers that will pressure facilities to choose between federal funding and their faith,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) tweeted.
“Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and Mormons who place their children in a child care center of their faith are not entitled to any assistance,” Tom Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, wrote in a column for CNS News.
“Religious providers are absolutely eligible, and we're excited for them to be part of this.”
It’s not hard to imagine why Republicans and their allies would spread this misinformation. They need a way to attack the child care proposal, which appears to be popular but which they oppose on a variety of substantive grounds. (It’s too much government spending, too much regulation, too much support for child care over at-home parenting, etc.)
This particular accusation has the advantage of fitting neatly into the narrative Republicans have been creating about Democrats trying to take educational choices away from parents. It also has the potential to get traction among the millions of working parents whose kids already attend faith-based child care centers.
What The Text Means
But the basic strategy of the Democratic proposal ― for better or worse, depending on your perspective ― is to build a better child care system using the pieces that already exist. And faith-based centers are one of those pieces. In one 2020 survey of working parents who use center-based child care, more than half said their kids attended a center at a house of worship or other faith-based organization.
“Religious providers are absolutely eligible, and we’re excited for them to be part of this,” Helen Hare, communications director for one of the plan’s original co-sponsors, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), told HuffPost. “One of the things Sen. Murray and Democrats wanted to do in writing this policy is make sure it builds on the programs that are already serving communities, including faith-based providers.”
A senior House Democratic House aide echoed that sentiment. “The bill gives parents the flexibility to choose a provider that best fits their needs ― including faith-based providers ― and it ensures faith-based providers can receive grant funding to build their capacity.”
That’s not just spin. Micah Schwartzman, a University of Virginia law professor specializing in religion and First Amendment issues, reviewed the legislation at HuffPost’s request and thought the eligibility of faith-based centers was clear. “This is, in effect, a federally funded voucher program to be administered by state governments. The program explicitly includes religious providers.”
Caroline Mala Corbin, a law professor at the University of Miami, noted that leaving out faith-based providers would probably not survive legal scrutiny, given the current doctrine about faith and policy.
“The program explicitly includes religious providers.”
“If the government is creating a program to help subsidize child care or child care providers, then under current Supreme Court rules it would violate the Free Exercise Clause if the government completely excluded any religious providers,” Corbin said. “But that is not what [the proposal] is doing. Religious-based child care providers are eligible for government funds.”
This is also, by the way, the understanding of many faith-based providers ― in part because it’s the way they’ve always operated. Churches and other religious organizations are already eligible for government subsidies under both the federal Head Start program and an additional child care program that the states administer with federal funding.
“The whole idea is for it to be a system that’s open to everybody, so it’s mixed delivery, whether its faith-based or [secular] private child care, or Head Start, or public school preschool,” Jane Pernicone, director of the Children’s Center of First Baptist Church of Greater Cleveland, told HuffPost. “I haven’t read all 2,000 pages of the bill, but what I understand from experts and colleagues across different sectors is that it’s open to everyone.”
Pernicone noted that her child care center has plenty of children who aren’t Baptist, which is common for faith-based providers. They happily serve children of any denomination, or no denomination at all, just as many parents gladly send their kids to child care centers run by other faiths.
How The Plan Would Work
Under the proposal, both sectarian and secular providers would need to meet state licensing requirements while satisfying new requirements included in the bill, such as higher worker pay, in order to accept the bill’s subsidies and get access to the grants. Providers would also have to abide by some existing anti-discrimination rules, taken from existing programs including Head Start, that would apply both to employees as well as families and children whom the centers serve.
It’s easy enough to imagine controversy over the anti-discrimination requirements ― say, if a church-based child care provider doesn’t want to employ LGBTQ care providers ― in much the same way disputes have erupted and sparked court cases about foster care services and birth control mandates for health insurance.
But faith-based organizations already enjoy some special exemptions from discrimination statutes, thanks in part to a “ministerial exception” that lets institutions limit employment to people of the same faith when they are involved in religious instruction. And objecting to the possibility that the federal program could exclude some child care providers that discriminate is a lot different from saying that the program would exclude religious centers altogether, especially when so many religious providers that are now part of federal early childhood programs abide by such rules with little apparent problem.
“The whole idea is for it to be a system that’s open to everybody, so it’s mixed delivery, whether its faith-based or [secular] private child care.”
The one passage in the legislation that identifies religion as a criteria for extra scrutiny covers special grants for improving quality and increasing capacity that the program would make available to providers. The section stipulates that “eligible child care providers may not use funds for buildings or facilities that are used primarily for sectarian instruction or religious worship.”
But the key word in that passage is “primarily.” The meaning would ultimately depend on decisions by federal and state regulators and maybe the courts ― who, the two experts said, would likely translate it as a requirement that churches spend the money on child care as opposed to, say, a new altar in the chapel.
“It would seem the language of law is only meant to limit expenditures on things that are primarily for religious use,” Corbin said. “It depends on who’s interpreting the law, obviously, but the worst-case scenario ― this idea of barring religious child care providers from making any improvements ― seems like it’s deliberating reading the word ‘primarily’ out of the statute.”
“It seems clear the intent is to make sure money from the program is actually used to provide child care services and not used for buildings or facilities that are used only for primarily religious purposes,” Schwartzman said.
Alas, that distinction was probably lost on the millions of people who read a recent New York Post article about the restrictions.
The article’s introduction stated flatly that the initiative would block faith-based providers from getting the grants. And although a passage later on quoted the legislative text accurately, the headline, “Biden’s Build Back Better Blocks Religious Facilities From Using Funds,” made it sound like churches and other such providers couldn’t get any money at all.
Neither of the claims were true. It remains to be seen whether that matters.