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Church Day-Care Centers Are Focus of Legal Battles

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The ongoing legal battle over state regulation of church-operated schools is spilling over into a new, and expanding, arena--day-care centers.

A growing number of federal and state judges have been asked to decide whether states have an obligation to require that centers run by religious groups meet minimum health, safety, and staffing standards.

In some cases, the lawsuits have been filed by religious groups who charge that the standards violate their First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. In others, private owners of for-profit centers in the few states that exempt church-run centers from compliance with the rules are arguing that such action violates their 14th Amendment right to equal protection under the law.

Some also maintain that, by granting the exemptions, states are violating the First Amendment's prohibition on government establishment of religion.

Recent Developments

Among the recent legal developments:

In Virginia, U.S. District Judge Richard L. Williams ruled in May that a state law exempting church-run centers from licensing requirements violated the First Amendment's establishment clause. The state has asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit to reverse the decision in the case, which was brought by a group of private day-care centers.

Last January, the Illinois Supreme Court reviewed a Cook County Circuit Court's ruling that a similar law in that state violated the 14th Amendment equal-protection rights of private day-care center owners. The state high court has yet to hand down its decision.

The Michigan Supreme Court agreed this summer to decide whether the First Amendment's free-exercise clause requires state officials to grant a licensing exemption to the Emmanuel Baptist Preschool, a church-affiliated center. The Michigan Court of Appeals ruled last year that the center was required to obtain a license.

In Missouri, the Child Day Care Association of St. Louis and other private day-care operators have charged that a state law granting license exemptions to church-run centers violates the establishment clause. The case is expected to go to trial before the Circuit Court for the City of St. Louis later this year.

Few Churches Object

Although churches are the largest providers of center-based day-care in the country, experts say that a very small percentage of religiously affiliated centers object to being licensed. In fact, in 1984, the National Council of Churches, which represents 32 Protestant denominations, recommended licensure in a position paper.

Most of the objections, it appears, are being raised by fundamentalist Christian churches, which also have been highly critical of state regulation of religiously affiliated schools.

"The piece of paper represents an authority, a headship over the church," said Charles Craze, a lawyer who has represented church-operated centers in several cases. "What [the churches] are trying to figure out is the legitimate function of government in their faith."

All 50 states require day-care centers to be licensed. At their least stringent, the regulations require centers to pass health, fire, and safety standards. Many states also mandate child-to-staff-member ratios, educational standards for care-givers, and age-appropriate toys and activities.

"When kids are away from their parents, they need special protection," said Carol Sanger, an associate professor of law at the University of Santa Clara who specializes in child-care issues.

"When you go get your hair cut, your beautician is licensed by the state," Ms. Sanger said. "Day care, which deals with a pretty valuable commodity--your child--should be licensed too."

Given the churches' mixed record in the courts, Ms. Sanger and other observers predict that Christian4groups will redouble their lobbying efforts to change state laws.

"Legislators don't have to look into the Constitution," Ms. Sanger said. "They look out their windows and see how many busloads of fundamentalists are pouring out."

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