Jewish Groups Split over Provisions of Child-care Bill Passed by Senate

Orthodox Jewish groups are pleased with landmark child-care legislation adopted by the U.S. Senate last Friday.

But a number of other Jewish groups are concerned about provisions in the bill that allow federal funds to go to day-care programs operated by religious institutions.

The bill, which must pass the House of Representatives and be signed by President Bush before it becomes law, would provide funds for parents to send children, up to age 13, to day-care programs before or after the school day.

A provision added to the bill a few weeks ago would allow those funds to go to day-care programs run by sectarian institutions, such as synagogues, Hebrew day schools and yeshivot.

Agudath Israel of America and Torah Umesorah, the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools, welcomed the Senate’s approval of the legislative package.

But several other Jewish groups fear that allowing federal funds to go to sectarian institutions would be tantamount to government endorsement of religion.

Groups that oppose the funding provision include the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, B’nai B’rith Women, Council of Jewish Federations, Na’amat Women, National Council of Jewish Women and Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Those groups are hoping that the House approves stricter language that would seek to prevent the appearance of government entanglement with religion. Differences in the two child-care bills would then be ironed out by a House-Senate conference committee.

CHANGE WAS MADE TO WIN SUPPORT

It is not clear whether Bush would sign the child-care bill as approved by the Senate. The president favored a Republican alternative to the bill passed Friday that would have reimbursed parents through tax credits. But the Senate defeated that proposal.

The bill passed Friday would provide $1.2 billion in federal funds to be distributed annually to parents in the form of vouchers issued by state governments.

Jewish groups critical of the Senate bill had been largely supportive of it until the change on funding of sectarian institutions was made.

The non-Orthodox Jewish groups also oppose two other provisions in the Senate bill:

One that would allow sectarian day-care providers to give preference in hiring to workers whose religious views are most compatible to the sponsoring facility.

Another that would allow sectarian providers to give preference in admissions policies to children of parents who have a “pre-existing relationship” to the facility, such as membership in a synagogue sponsoring a day-care program.

In past cases involving the use of federal funds for sectarian educational purposes, the Supreme Court has upheld some uses and struck down others.

Sammie Moshenberg, director of NCJW’s Washington office, called the constitutionality of such use of federal funds “up for grabs.”

While Moshenberg sees no difference in constitutionality of whether such funds go through parents or not, David Zwiebel, general counsel and director of government relations at Agudath Israel, made such a distinction.

Funds going directly from governments to sectarian programs, and not through parents, would raise “difficult questions,” Zwiebel argued.

REFORM SCHOOLS FAVOR AID

One Jewish group caught in the middle of the child-care debate was Conservative Judaism’s 65-member Solomon Schechter Day School Association. It initially supported the Ford-Durenberger Amendment, through its membership in the Council for American Public Education, representing mainly parochial schools.

Robert Abramson, director of the education department at the United Synagogue of America, which oversees the Schechter association, said it initially “misread the implications of the amendment,” and had to inform the Senate otherwise. He said his group has traditionally opposed federal aid to sectarian education programs.

By contrast, the Council of Reform Day Schools backs federal aid to sectarian child-care programs, said Erwin Shlachter, its president.

Shlachter, headmaster of the Rodeph Shalom School on New York’s West Side, said the 15-member group believed that allowing federal aid to go exclusively to non-sectarian child-care programs “impinges on the right of people to practice their religion.”

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