Key Point 13-02.1 In the Smith case (1990) the Supreme Court ruled that a neutral law of general applicability is presumably valid and need not be supported by a compelling government interest to be consistent with the first amendment, even if it interferes with the exercise of religion.
A Tennessee court ruled that a state law requiring church childcare agencies to be licensed did not violate the constitutional rights of a church-run program that refused to seek a license. A church operated a “Bible School” from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., Monday through Friday, during the regular school year. Children arrived and left at various times throughout the day and could stay for any number of hours based on their parents’ needs. The Bible School enrolled children ages one to sixteen, and school-aged children were transported to and from their schools by church staff members. On days when schools were closed, the children could stay at the church all day. The Bible School enrollment mostly consisted of children of church members, but a few children were non-members who attended other churches. The church charged a weekly fee per child that varied by age. If the child only stayed at the church before or after school, the rates are reduced. While at Bible School, children learned Bible stories, scriptures, and songs, created Bible related arts and crafts projects, participated in learning centers, improved their writing, math, and reading skills, received help with their school homework, played inside and outside, took naps, and ate meals and snacks.
The church began operating the Bible School in 2000. In 2004, the church’s pastor contacted the fire department to determine whether the church’s facilities were in compliance with local fire codes. A fire inspector determined that the Bible School was subject to “daycare occupancy” standards of the safety code, and found a number of fire code violations during the inspection. The fire department also informed the Department of Human Services that the church appeared to be operating a childcare facility without a license.
A few weeks later, members of the Department of Human Services (“DHS”) visited the Bible School. They observed 36 preschool-aged children being cared for, and they were informed that older children would be returning from school that afternoon, for a total of 61 children enrolled that day. The DHS evaluators concluded that the church was operating a childcare agency subject to licensure pursuant to state law. Tennessee law requires any “childcare agency” to be licensed by the state, and defines a childcare agency as “any place or facility operated by any person or entity that provides childcare for 3 or more hours per day for at least 13 children who are not related to the primary caregiver.”
A letter was hand-delivered to the pastor, informing him of DHS’s conclusion and the applicable licensing laws. The letter stated that if the church continued to operate the Bible School without a license beyond a specified date, DHS would pursue a court-ordered injunction. The church did not apply for a license, and DHS representatives observed children being dropped off at the Church the following week. As a result, DHS filed a complaint seeking injunctive relief against the Bible School, its director, and the pastor (the “defendants”). Specifically, the complaint alleged that the defendants could keep no more than four children for more than three hours per day without some type of license, and that DHS staff had observed 36 children at the church and were told that 61 were enrolled for that day. Therefore, DHS claimed that the defendants were operating a childcare agency without a license in violation of state law.
The church insisted that its Bible School qualified for one of the exemptions from licensing: for “nurseries, babysitting services and other children’s activities that are not ordinarily operated on a daily basis.” It also claimed that the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom barred the state from interfering with the operation of the Bible School. A trial court concluded that the church’s Bible School met the definition of a “child care center” and as such was subject to the licensure requirement; that none of the licensure exemptions applied to the Bible School since the church was providing long-term child care while the exemptions contemplated short-term care; and, that “religiously motivated conduct” is subject to reasonable control.
The court issued a restraining order prohibiting the Bible School from “opening or operating any child welfare agency without a proper active license issued by the Tennessee Department of Human Services.” When the church continued to operate the Bible School without a license, the trial court found the defendants in contempt of court. The defendants thereafter agreed to discontinue operation of its Bible School, but appealed the trial court’s rulings to a state appeals court. The church’s main argument was that the licensing requirements violated its constitutional right to freely exercise its religion. Specifically, the church asserted that becoming a licensed “daycare” would violate its religious beliefs because it believed that Jesus Christ is the founder of the church, and that the church should not be assigned to an entity such as the state of Tennessee.
A state appeals court rejected the church’s arguments, and ruled that the trial court acted properly in ordering the church to discontinue the operation of its unlicensed Bible School. It noted that the United States Supreme Court has ruled that “neutral laws of general applicability,” that apply to equally to all organizations and do not single out religion for unfavorable treatment, are presumptively constitutional without the need for the state to prove a compelling interest. Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520, 531 (1993). To permit otherwise “would allow the professed doctrines of religious belief to be superior to the law of the land, and in effect permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.” As a result, “claims based on religious convictions do not automatically entitle persons to unilaterally establish the terms and conditions of their relations with government, and our constitutions do not give individuals veto power over government actions.”
The court concluded that the licensing law in this case was a neutral law of general applicability, and as such it did not violate the church’s constitutional rights. It was “a reasonable means of promoting a legitimate public purpose, and we must uphold it.”
The court acknowledged that some other states have enacted childcare licensing laws containing an exemption for church-run programs, but concluded that such exemptions, while constitutionally permissible, were not constitutionally required. It also pointed out that there are several states that “do not exempt religious entities from childcare licensing laws, and these license requirements have been upheld against [constitutional] challenges similar to the one in this case.” It referred to the following cases: North Valley Baptist Church v. McMahon, 893 F.2d 1139 (9th Cir. 1990) (California law); Darrell Dorminey Children’s Home v. Georgia Department of Human Resources, 389 S.E.2d 211 (Georgia 1990); State ex rel. Pringle v. Heritage Baptist Temple, Inc., 693 P.2d 1163 (Kansas 1985); State, Michigan Department of Social Services v. Emmanuel Baptist Preschool, 455 N.W.2d 1 (Michigan 1990); Health Services Division v. Temple Baptist Church, 814 P.2d 130 (New Mexcio 1991); State v. Corpus Christi People’s Baptist Church, Inc., 683 S.W.2d 692, 695 (Texas 1984).
The court also rejected the church’s proposal that it be allowed to “register” with the state as a less intrusive alternative to licensure, noting that such an alternative had been “considered and rejected as an insufficient means of serving the states’ interests in protecting the health, safety, and welfare of children in childcare centers.” Department of Human Services v. Priest Lake Community Baptist Church, 2007 WL 1828871 (Tenn. App. 2007).
This Recent Development first appeared in Church Law & Tax Report, March/April 2008.