Key point. Church-operated after school programs may be subject to licensing requirements imposed by state law.
* A Connecticut court ruled that a church-operated after school program was not subject to a license requirement under state law. A church received a notice from a public health agency informing it that its after-school program for children constituted "an illegal child day care center" since it was operating without a license. The church's program was an after school program that focused on children at risk. It provided a variety of services, including homework help, that were designed to provide friendship, positive discipline, hope, and meaning for the children.
State law requires child day care centers to be licensed, and defines a child day care center as "any organization that provides care to more than twelve related or unrelated children outside their own homes on a regular basis." There are a few exceptions to the license requirement, including "recreation operations such as … boys' and girls' clubs, church-related activities, scouting, camping or community-youth programs." The agency insisted that the church's child care program was not eligible for this exemption, since "circle time for reading aloud, creative projects, weekly meetings for discussion and occasional trips to museums or other places of interest are not primarily recreational activities for children."
The church sued the state, claiming that its after school program was exempt from licensure. First, it argued that child day care centers have historically been viewed as being limited to programs for children who are not attending school, and not to after school programs that provide services to school-age children. The court rejected this argument on the ground that the licensing law defined child care centers broadly enough to include after school programs.
Second, the church argued that its after school program was exempt because it was a church-related activity. The court acknowledged that church-related programs were exempt from licensure, but concluded that this exemption did not apply to the church in this case because its after school program "has no religious connotation whatsoever. It is church-related only in that the church feels that a part of its mission is to provide such recreational opportunities to young people in its area, and in that it is physically housed in the church's building. There is no religious instruction, and many of the children who participate are not from families who are members of the church."
Third, the church argued that its after school program was exempt from licensure as a church-related "recreational operation." The state had concluded that the after school program's "circle time for reading aloud, creative projects, weekly meetings for discussion and occasional trips to museums or other places of interest are not primarily recreational activities for children." The court found this to be an excessively narrow interpretation of the law that was "clearly erroneous." It noted that "one cannot escape the conclusion that [the state] viewed the concept of recreation as activity in which the using of one's mind is not a significant component. In this benighted view, sports and games would quite clearly qualify, but reading, discussing, visiting museums and other activities of the mind apparently would not."
The court did not disagree with the state's conclusion that to be exempt, an after school program must be primarily recreational in nature. It did disagree, however, "that a program with components that might also be viewed as educational cannot still be primarily recreational in nature." The court concluded: "The only sensible way to read a requirement that recreational programs with educational components must be licensed is that to the extent that they involve significant periods of formal instruction, they cross the line from learning by exposure to stimuli such as art, books, dance, museums and the like and into the realm of pedagogy. At that point, it can fairly be said, a program is no longer primarily recreational, but rather has become an instructional or educational program."
The court concluded: "A review of the activities of [the after school program] reveals nothing that exceeds the bounds of the recreational. Although time is set aside for homework, this was presented merely as an opportunity to do such work on one's own at the church, rather than waiting until arriving home in the evening, and the alternative projects were presented only as activities to stimulate the minds of those who had no homework assignments. In short, [the after school program] is a recreational operation that is exempt from licensure."
Application. Many churches have started after school programs for children in their community. Many others are considering such a program. This case demonstrates that such programs may be subject to licensure requirements under state law. It is imperative for church leaders to determine whether such a program must be licensed. This should be done before the program is implemented. As this case illustrates, licensure laws typically contain one or more exemptions that may apply to church-based after school programs. Of special interest was the church's conclusion that the program in this case did not qualify for exemption as a church-related activity since it had "no religious connotation whatsoever," and was church-related "only in that the church feels that a part of its mission is to provide such recreational opportunities to young people in its area, and in that it is physically housed in the church's building. There is no religious instruction, and many of the children who participate are not from families who are members of the church." This characterization would not be true for some church-operated after school programs that make religious instruction an integral component. Episcopal Church of St. Paul v. Galvin, (Conn. Super. 2006).