Before Christmas the Build Back Better Act (BBBA—H.R. 5376) was actively being considered by the Senate after passing the House. The bill includes many of President Biden’s domestic policy priorities. Among other initiatives, it proposes greatly increased federal subsidies for child care and a new, free, universal pre-kindergarten (UPK) program.
Proponents of BBBA say that they intend faith-based organizations to participate in helping to supply the additional subsidized child care and the additional preK classrooms. Yet the language in the bill as it passed the House includes many elements that would make it impossible for many faith-based providers to participate. IRFA, along with a multi-faith group of other religious freedom advocates, worked extensively with the House and the Senate to get revised language to remove those obstacles to participation.
In December, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee proposed revised language. The changed language eliminates some of the problems by removing the original nondiscrimination requirements that would have banned religious hiring and religiously selective admissions in child care and pre-K programs. BBBA’s proposed new child care certificates were confirmed to be “indirect” government funding that allows child care providers to include religious teaching and activities.
However, religion continues to be banned from the pre-K program, which is a grant-funded program. Moreover, the language for both programs stresses the many legal obligations of participating programs without clearly emphasizing the protections for faith-based organizations and small organizations that will enable a wide range of them to know they are welcome in these programs.
It became clear before Christmas that the BBBA, modified or not, could not gain sufficient votes in the Senate. Extensive discussions since then among Democratic members of Congress and between them and the White House are seeking to identify what, if any, elements of the BBBA bill might gain the needed votes in the Senate.
In the meantime, religious freedom advocates continue to work with Congress and the administration to urge that, if the federal government is to expand spending for child care and for early childhood education, the rules it adopts ought to give faith-based organizations the opportunity to participate without sacrifice of their religious identity and religion-based practices. Religious freedom, including institutional religious freedom, is protected in the Constitution. Moreover, programs intended to serve the public ought not to exclude varieties of service that are strongly desired by many.