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Groups Concerned Child-care Bill Could Pose Church-state Problems

October 12, 1989
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While American Jewish groups are delighted that Congress is about to make federal funds available to improve child care in this country, several are concerned that provisions in pending legislation could undermine the separation of church and state.

By contrast, Agudath Israel of America, representing an Orthodox perspective, has welcomed news that both houses of Congress may extend funding to sectarian child-care programs without restricting the religious content of their programs.

Leaders in the Senate and House of Representatives are wrangling over conflicting versions of the bill, all of which provide a system of tax credits for low-income families, combined with either federal grants to states or direct grants to child-care providers.

Unless the Senate-House conference committee decides otherwise, the bill will be included in a huge package of omnibus legislation that is to come before Congress in the near future.

Non-Orthodox groups were pleased with the House’s various conceptions of the bill, which would allow sectarian institutions to receive the federal funds only if their day-care programs were determined to be non-sectarian in nature.

But the same groups are disappointed that House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) has indicated his willingness to accept a Senate version containing no church-state safeguards.

Judith Golub, assistant Washington representative of the American Jewish Committee, said her group realizes that too much of the nation’s child care is provided by church and synagogue-based institutions for them to be excluded by the plan entirely.


But she said the proposed House-Senate compromise could threaten parents’ choices in choosing a day-care center. “If a parent sends a child to federally subsidized day care, they shouldn’t have to worry about their religion being undermined,” she said.

Groups holding similar positions include the American Jewish Congress, B’nai B’rith Women, Council of Jewish Federations, Na’amat Women, National Council of Jewish Women and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Hyla Lipsky, president of B’nai B’rith Women, said in a statement this week, “We simply do not believe that child care should come at the expense of safeguarding the separation of church and state.”

Gephardt’s proposed compromise on the bill, outlined in a letter to members of the House, is seen here as a calculated risk to get child-care legislation passed before enthusiasm for it wanes on Capitol Hill, even if parts of the bill raise church-state concerns.

If the Senate-House conference committee agrees to the compromise, Jewish groups that favor a strict separation of church and state may have to take similar risks.

“Do you support this bill now because of the need for child care and then take your chances by challenging the church-state violations in court, or do you oppose it now and risk not getting a child-care bill this year?” asked David Saperstein, UAHC’s Washington representative.

He said the UAHC, the congregational arm of Reform Judaism, will take its chances in court.

Other groups are awaiting the outcome of the conference committee negotiations, expected sometime this week, before deciding on tactics.

Agudath Israel has no such dilemma. The group, representing a constituency overwhelmingly educated in exclusively Jewish schools, has long called for federal support of sectarian institutions and programs.

Abba Cohen, Washington representative of Agudath Israel, cited studies saying that as much as one-third of the nation’s child care is provided by sectarian institutions.

“If a bill doesn’t reach sectarian institutions, you are disenfranchising one-third of the country’s child care from the benefits of the bill,” he said.

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