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COVID-19 Support for Child Care Should be Welcoming for Faith-Based Providers

The coronavirus pandemic has been especially challenging for child care providers. With the lockdown, many families were out of work or working from home and stopped using child care. Providers had to cope with sick or quarantined staff. New intensive cleaning methods had to be implemented. Building spaces needed to be reconfigured and their capacity downsized. At the same time, expanded child care hours were needed by some essential workers, and governments wanted to be sure that enough daycare programs remained open even if the child counts were way down. Unfortunately, in providing that needed extra funding, Congress chose a funding method—grants—that can exclude faith-based child care providers from equitable participation. 

Congress responded by authorizing, in the CARES Act, $3.5 billion in additional funding for the Child Care and Development Block Grant Program, the federal-state program that funds childcare for low-income families. States are to use these funds to help providers remain open despite decreased enrollment, to subsidize care for the children of essential workers, and to fund cleaning and cleaning supplies whether or not a particular provider has been offering federally subsidized daycare. (As small businesses or small nonprofits, child care providers can also apply for support through the Paycheck Protection Program, and they and their employees are able to access other kinds of support too.)

Unfortunately, in providing that needed extra funding, Congress chose a funding method—grants—that can exclude faith-based child care providers from equitable participation. Such exclusion is especially troubling during the ongoing pandemic, as the goal of the funding is to help child care centers remain open to serve the needs of workers and families. As discussed below, grant funding comes with religious freedom restrictions that prevent many faith-based providers from participating. During this unprecedented time, an all-hands-on-deck approach is needed to prevent the creation or worsening of child care deserts in places where such providers are most needed. 

In addition to the grant-based funding in the CARES Act, the other bills that have proposed substantial additional funding (none of which have made it through Congress to be signed into law), like bills by Democrats in the House and by Republicans in the Senate, again have approached child care funding with the problematic grant funds method that creates barriers, rather than opportunities, for child care providers of all faiths, which has left none to participate. 

Grant funding. When federal, state, or local governments award federal funds by means of grants to private service providers, they cannot exclude faith-based organizations or require those organizations to diminish their religious identity and practices in order to be eligible to compete for the money. A “level playing field” is provided thanks to Charitable Choice federal legal provisions and the similar Equal Treatment federal regulations. However, to respect the requirement of the First Amendment’s religion clause, that the government must not “establish” a religion when a faith-based provider receives one of these grants, has to ensure that none of the federal dollars end up paying for religious activities like Scripture reading or prayer. Such explicitly religious activities have to be kept separate from the grant-funded services and the activities have to be voluntary for the people receiving the help. Moreover, the provider has to agree not to discriminate on a religious basis against people seeking these grant-funded services.

These are great principles. They serve every eligible person, do not force anyone into religious activities as the price of getting a needed service, and do not use taxpayer dollars to pay for religious activities as if the government is taking the side of religion. But the principles are not appropriate for child care services. Child care is, and should be, diverse because the families needing it are themselves diverse. Some families desire faith-based care, even as others insist on non-religious care. Funding delivered via grants is problematic for faith-based providers because of its secularizing requirements. A funding mechanism that is equally hospitable to both religious and secular providers is essential, particularly in this pandemic time.

Voucher funding. It just so happens that Congress, when it created the federal child care program—the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) program (now sometimes called the Child Care Development Fund or CCDF)—was well aware of these inadequacies of grant funding. So, the CCDBG program was carefully designed to minimize the use of grants (or the similarly restricted contracts) and maximize, instead, the use of child care certificates or vouchers. Vouchers are awarded to eligible families. The families then check a list of eligible child care providers and pick the one that will be best for their own children (CCDBG funds support organizations that create and maintain these lists and that recruit and train new child care providers). After the daycare center or in-home person has provided the period of daycare, the vouchers from the families are turned in to the government and the center or person receives payment. As much as 90% of federally subsidized child care is paid for by vouchers awarded to parents and not by grants awarded directly to child care providers. Many of these voucher-funded providers are secular and many are faith-based.

Voucher funding has two key benefits for the families and for faith-based providers. It promotes choices that are good for diverse families and diverse providers. Child care, unlike many services, is often available from many different providers and in different settings. Voucher funding enables faith-based providers to offer child care that is distinctively faith-shaped. Faith-based providers that receive CCDBG funding through the vouchers rather than by grants directly from the state child care agency, can include religious activities in the child care, can be religiously selective in which families they serve, and are guaranteed the right to hire only employees who are religiously compatible (these special rights disappear if the provider gets all or almost all of its funding from the government). These freedoms add to the families’ choices, by allowing those who want to, to entrust their children to a provider that shares their religion while also being open about the religion in the care that is given. These special freedoms also respect the First Amendment’s religion clause, with voucher funding, that the government is not selecting, or “establishing,” a religion but only helping the families “exercise” their own religious convictions.

So voucher funding, not grant funding, is the method Congress should specify when allocating additional funding to the regular CCDBG program. This way, the family’s choice is honored and the faith-based providers can access the funding without having to accept harmful restrictions on their religious character. 

The need for special grant funding to provide COVID-19 relief. COVID-19 presents a special challenge that requires a special solution. During the coronavirus pandemic, while Congress is trying to get extra funds to child care centers that might be serving very few children (so are taking in few vouchers) or that have had to close (thus no vouchers at all) or that do not participate in the CCDBG program but need funds to help with special cleaning (have never gotten vouchers), Congress must develop special child care grants that are also free of religious restrictions.

Grants are the way to get money to these child care providers. With a grant, they will get government support whether or not they are now serving or ever have served children whose care is paid for by vouchers. It is however imperative that this grant money not carry its usual restrictions. A faith-based provider that accepts the grant should not be required to strip out the religious activities it offers as part of its child care program, it should not suddenly be required to ignore religion in deciding which families to serve, and it should not become subject to a ban on considering religion in hiring staff. If redesigned grants carry the religious freedoms of vouchers instead of the usual religious limitations of grants, then the funding will achieve the congressional goal of broadly supporting child care during this emergency. 

It is within the power of Congress to design special child care grants made hospitable for faith-based child care providers. That is what should have been done with the CARES Act child care funding. It is what Congress should be writing into its follow-up COVID-19 response bills.

A request for information: If you operate a faith-based child care program, has your state offered you special pandemic child care grants to keep your doors open, retain staff, or pay for cleaning and cleaning supplies? Were you concerned about the religious restrictions attached to these grants? Reply to this message with your comments and observations. Thank you.

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