MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A House of Representatives committee approved Tuesday a compromise proposal that would give the state limited oversight over hundreds of faith-based day cares that are currently unregulated by the state.
The House Children and Senior Advocacy Committee unanimously voted to send the bill to the House floor. The approval came after a lengthy public hearing in which advocates named children who had been injured, or killed, in exempt centers.
"Everybody knows we have a problem," bill sponsor Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, said.
Alabama has had a longstanding law exempting faith-based day cares from state licensure and regulations such as maximum child-to-worker ratios. Nearly half of the 1,914 day cares in the state claim the religious exemption, according to the Department of Human Resources.
Under the compromise bill, the centers would remain exempt from getting a license, but the state would be able to inspect the centers once yearly. They would also have to submit names of workers and their criminal histories. Centers who take government subsidies would have to be licensed. Exempt facilities would have to post notices that they are not licensed by the state.
Opponents of the bill said they were worried about additional regulations on church-run day cares.
John Eidsmoe, senior counsel with the Foundation for Moral Law, told the committee the centers are already accountable to parents and the church.
"Our concern about this bill is that it is the foot in the door that leads to further regulation," Eidsmoe said.
During the public hearing, Melanie R. Bridgeforth, executive director of VOICES for Alabama's Children, named some of the children who had been injured, or in one case killed, in recent high-profile incidents that involved exempt centers.
Eighty-six children were sickened in 2015 at a Montgomery facility after eating food that had been left out overnight. A 5-year-old in Mobile died in August after being left inside a van at an exempt center.
The House approved similar legislation last year, but the bill failed to get a vote in the Alabama Senate. Warren said she hopes to quickly get a floor vote in the Alabama House.
"We stood up here and allowed this bill to die, and in August we had a child dead. I think that put a whole different perspective on what we are responsible for and what we cannot let continue to go in the state of Alabama," Warren said.
Warren said many exempt centers aren't part of actual churches, but are for-profit endeavors that claim a religious affiliation on paperwork to escape regulation by the state.
Warren had initially sought to require all day cares to be licensed in the state, but the proposal got pushback from churches.
J. Robin Mears, executive director of the Alabama Christian Education Association, said the group opposed a licensing requirement but that the current bill was a "right balance" that the organization could support.
"It respects parents and their choice of care for their children. It does require the church to provide complete disclosure to every parent about their childcare ministry," Mears said.