Though it’s expected to undergo some changes, a bill in Alabama’s House is aiming to do away with laws allowing child care centers with a religious affiliation to bypass state licensing as well as the routine inspections and regulations to which secular day care facilities are subjected.

Currently, Alabama is one of seven states that have some type of religious exemption for facilities providing child care for more than four hours a day. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, has been primarily pushed by the advocacy group VOICES for Alabama’s Children.

Though it’s not the first time the religious exemption has come under fire, this year’s bill has seen more momentum and support both in the Legislature and from the Alabama Department of Human Resources.

As written, House Bill 277 would require all child care facilities to be licensed through DHR regardless of any religious affiliation. However, it does contain provisions to ensure the licensing process does not “infringe upon the rights of the facility to teach or practice a religion.”

HB277 cleared its first hurdle last week, passing unanimously out of the House Children and Senior Advocacy Committee with support from local Reps. Margie Wilcox and Barbara Drummond.

“There’s a lot of reasons for that unanimous support, and one was that the bill’s sponsor is willing to work with these organizations to make sure there are no issues with the separation of church and state,” Drummond said. “There was a long public hearing on this bill, and I think we all ultimately want the same thing, and that’s to make sure all children are protected.”

While the bill has seen support, it’s also raised some concern due to the sensitive issue of religious freedom as well as the sheer number of unlicensed facilities it could affect. According to DHR, there are 943 license-exempt child care centers in Alabama compared to 998 licensed centers.

In Mobile County, license-exempt facilities make up a far greater percentage of the available child care services — with DHR reporting 188 unlicensed facilities compared to only 75 with a license from the state.

Melanie Bridgeforth, executive director of VOICES, said that hasn’t always been the case. The organization has tracked this issue for more than a decade, and Bridgeforth said the number of license-exempt child care facilities in Alabama has increased by 50 percent since 2000.

Bridgeforth said there isn’t any data available on license-exempt facilities that have violated standards of care because there is no process to monitor those centers. However, she said, “there’s been abuse” of the protections the exemption was originally intended to provide.

Stickers worn by supporters of a bill aimed at ending Alabama’s license exemption for religious-affiliated child care centers. (Voices of Alabama’s Children)

“The tricky thing about exemptions is people who are providing good care benefit from them, but so do people who are providing not-so-good care,” Bridgeforth said. “That’s the problem with carving out a loophole for any particular group when you’re talking about provisions that provide for the health and wellbeing of children.”

The position of VOICES is that the current system provides protection for some children and not others. Bridgeforth said the only way to address the problem is to bring every child care provider under the same umbrella so the same minimum standards are met across the board.

Barry Spear, a public information officer with DHR, said the state agency supported HB277 as a matter of “child safety.” He said day care centers operated through ministres have particularly been “a concern” for the state health officers, who can only get involved with an unlicensed facility after children may already be in danger.

“Anybody can say they’re a ministry — all they have to do is create some letterhead, send it to us and we can’t even go confirm that they’ve done the minimum they’re required to do,” he said. “The only way we can even go in one of those facilities is if there’s been some kind of child welfare complaint. Otherwise, our licensing people can’t legally enter the facility to do anything.”

Yet Spear believes most of Alabama’s license-exempt day care centers are “running just fine,” adding that most “wouldn’t have much trouble at all becoming licensed.” However, he agreed there have been cases when child care providers have obviously abused the system.

“We’ve had centers with licenses we’ve been getting ready to suspend or revoke entirely, and in some cases … they’ll voluntarily give us their license,” he said. “Then, shortly thereafter, they’ve filed for an religious exemption under the law, they’ve opened back up and there’s nothing we can do.”

That was case with day care centers Jesse Thomas operated in Montgomery County. After multiple incidents, Thomas saw his license revoked by DHR in late 2010. By 2011, though, Thomas had established a religious nonprofit, applied for an exemption and was operating day care facilities once again.

Spear said 86 children became sick from food poisoning at two of Thomas’ day care centers in 2015 — an outbreak of illness that prompted multiple lawsuits and brought national attention to the subject of unregulated child care centers in states that allow them.

Having passed through its first committee, HB277 will now go before the Rules Committee and can go before the full House for debate following a third reading. Since the religious exemption was added more than three decades ago, this is the farthest any bill attempting to repeal it has progressed.

According to Bridgeforth, media reports on cases like Thomas’ helped propel the issue to a level that required lawmakers to take notice. However, she said, this has also been a “defining moment” because of the cross-section of support the bill has received.

“It’s not just people who provide child care services. It’s folks like us, who are advocates and district attorneys, who are very much in support of what we’re doing here, it’s faith leaders, public health advocates, you name it,” she said. “Also, without an outspoken legislative champion, all of these things are just ideas. They take it and make it an actual policy vehicle.”