Bill to shift church day cares' oversight advances

Posted: June 21, 2012

HARRISBURG - A Senate committee Tuesday approved a bill that would take oversight of roughly 600 church-based day-care facilities away from the Department of Public Welfare, which faith groups contend has too much control over their religious missions.

The bill would shift oversight to the Department of Education, which does not have the investigative and enforcement resources of the DPW.

The legislation passed out of the Education Committee on a 9-2 vote.

The committee chairman, Sen. Jeffrey Piccola (R., Dauphin), said the bill was needed because of "continuing encroachment that impacts the religious mission of schools and day-care facilities."

When pressed by other lawmakers, neither Piccola nor a lobbyist for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, which supports the measure, could cite an instance where there had been an attempt by state officials to interfere with any religious curriculum.

The Catholic Conference has been locked in a battle with the state over day-care regulations for years, having lost a lawsuit seeking to allow the facilities to break free from state control.

The Department of Public Welfare licenses and regulates 5,400 day-care facilities statewide, including conducting inspections and enforcing health and safety codes.

Proponents, including other faith groups, turned to the legislature for assistance because the clock is ticking on 11 day-care centers that are operating under a cease-and-desist order after having failed to obtain a certificate of compliance with state law.

Carey Miller, a welfare agency spokeswoman, said the facilities did not have any safety violations but failed to submit the compliance form.

Child advocates are concerned that the bill weakens standards for faith-based day-care operators, for instance, allowing individuals as young as 16 with less training to work as paid staff members and eliminate the requirement for tests for communicable diseases such as tuberculosis.

Joan Benso, president of the advocacy group Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, said that shifting hundreds of child-care facilities away from an enforcement agency and into an agency that has no such authority or regulatory infrastructure was fraught with problems.

"The commonwealth has core responsibility to protect children while their parents are working," said Benso. "The bill is ill-placed, duplicative, and unnecessarily costly."

Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery), one of two lawmakers to vote against the bill, said he supported religious freedom, but said it appeared the legislation was crafted in an attempt to evade regulations.

The slew of questions from Leach and others prompted Piccola to summon Philip Murren, a Camp Hill-based lawyer representing the Catholic Conference, to the witness table for an impromptu hearing.

Murren later said that there is "nothing in the bill that is evasive in any way."

"All the facilities would still have to comply with regulations governing dangerous and unsanitary conditions and child-abuse reporting," Murren said. "We are concerned about the gradual expansion of government intrusionw into the quality of education."

Miller declined to comment directly on Gov. Corbett's position, saying only that he looked forward to continuing to work with the legislature and stakeholders on the issue.

Contact Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or or follow on Twitter @inkyamy.

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