In recent years, the right has put a lot of resources to expanding the concept of religious exemptions to the law, mostly as a weapon to stymie progress for women and LGBT people. Unable to stop federal laws requiring insurance plans to cover contraception or states to offer marriage licenses to same-sex couples, conservatives have turned their energies instead to making it as hard as possible for people to exercise their rights by arguing that businesses, non-profits and even state employees should be able to cite religion as an excuse not to obey laws protecting gay people from discrimination or securing women's access to contraception services.
It's an alarming push to expand the idea of religious exemptions past the right for an individual to practice their own faith to the "right" to impose that faith on others. However, this is far from the first time that conservatives have used religion as an excuse to offer broad exemptions from state and federal laws meant to protect people's health and wellbeing. Many states have religious exemptions on all manner of health and safety regulations, even when it comes to those regulations meant to protect children from harm.
As investigative journalist Amy Julia Harris, writing for Reveal, has discovered, the mania for religious exemptions for regulations on day cares has led to a rash of children getting lost, hurt and in some cases, killed.
Most day cares operate under understandably strict regulations to keep the children safe, such as having training requirements for workers in first aid, and perhaps most importantly, limiting how many children that a single worker can look after at a time. But 16 states relax the requirements and six states — Alabama, Indiana, Missouri, Florida, North Carolina and Virginia — waive nearly all the health and safety standards, so long as your day care is affiliated with a church.
Unfortunately, this leads to quite a few religious day cares cutting corners in appalling ways, with an eye towards saving money. And children are paying the price.
Harris chronicles two very sad cases, involving 1-year-old Carlos Cardenas and Dylan Cummings, who was just a few weeks old. Both boys were sent to church-affiliated day cares that took full advantage of the religious exemptions from state day care regulations. Both boys died, in incidents that would have likely been prevented if the states held church day cares to the same standard that secular day cares are held.
These incidents are just the worst in a series of horror stories that Harris turned up in these states that have huge religious exemptions for day cares: babies left in dirty diapers so long their skin got infected, toddlers frequently running off from lack of supervision, children suffering from serious injuries due to lack of supervision.
On top of the accidents and neglect, Harris found the religious exemption situation being exploited even more deliberately. Day cares who call themselves religious are exempted from regulations barring corporal punishment in four states, and many take advantage, beating children with a ferocity that should chill any decent person.
"In Alabama, children were whipped with belts and locked in closets for so long that they peed their pants," Harris writes. In many day cares, hildren were paddled and pinched and hit so hard it left bruises.
Perhaps most disturbingly, there's a trend of day care operators getting shut down for child abuse and neglect, only to rebrand themselves "Christian" so they can reopen without worrying about regulation.
"In total, Deborah Stokes has operated at least a dozen Christian day cares across southern Alabama," Harris writes in chronicling one alarming example. "Every time she is chased out of town by furious parents, workers or landlords, she reopens in the next town over."
What makes this situation all the more upsetting is that there's no real need for any of it. Most Americans agree that individuals should be able to follow their faith, if it isn't really interfering with others: to be able to wear religious clothing, pray, and follow your practices without fear of losing a job or being discriminated against for it.
But it's a stretch and a half to say that anyone's freedom of religious exercise is being constrained by having to follow basic safety regulations when you open a day care. No one's faith is being imposed upon because they have to make sure the babies don't wander off. Your right to worship Jesus isn't touched if you're required to use time-outs for discipline instead of spanking. This should be common sense.
But, for political reasons, the right has decided that disingenuous invocations of "religious freedom" should simply be a blanket pass to stomp all over other people's rights and, in this case, safety. Add a dollop of intrinsic conservative hostility to health and safety regulations in the first place, and you have the situation that Harris chronicles: Children being hurt and even killed, and religion being used as an all-purpose card for those guilty to get out of responsibility.
This is why it's so important for liberals to hold the line and fight the right's efforts to make "religious freedom" an excuse to get out of any law or regulation they don't like. Conservatives like to downplay the effects of the efforts to expand religious exemptions from health care and anti-discrimination laws. You often hear that women who work for religious employers can just get contraception elsewhere or that gay couples who are told their kind isn't served at bakeries or flower shops can just go to another one. These arguments often seem reasonable to people, making religious exemptions to the law seem like no big deal.
But conservatives are using these issues as a way to open the door to even more extensive exemptions from the law for people who claim to have religious reasons for doing so. Hell, they're already there, with these laws that say you don't have to look after children properly if you just claim Jesus is your reason for neglect. The more precedent is set for the idea that religion in an all-purpose exemption from the law, the more lwwe are going to see more disasters like the ongoing problem with church day care deregulation in the red states.