A federal appeals court ruled that a Virginia law exempting church-operated childcare facilities from state licensing did not violate the constitution's nonestablishment of religion clause. The law was enacted in response to the contentions of several churches that their religious beliefs would not permit them to apply for or accept a state license to carry out a function that they considered to be an integral part of their religious ministry.
A group of childcare providers without religious affiliation challenged the law in court on the ground that it placed them at an unfair competitive disadvantage. The appeals court upheld the validity of the Virginia exemption largely on the basis of the United States Supreme Court's decision (in Amos v. Presiding Bishop) upholding the exemption of churches from the prohibition of religious-based discrimination in employment.
The court quoted from the Amos decision: "A law is not unconstitutional simply because it allows churches to advance religion, which is their very purpose. For a law to [violate the nonestablishment clause] it must be fair to say that the government itself has advanced religion through its own activities and influence." The Virginia law, concluded the appeals court, did not amount to an impermissible advancement of religion by the state. Rather, it was a permissible "accommodation of the exercise of religion."
The court, in rejecting the contention that a single exemption of church-operated facilities rendered the law invalid, again quoted from the Amos decision: "Where, as here, government acts with the proper purpose of lifting a regulation that burdens the exercise of religion, we see no need to require that the exemption comes packaged with benefits to secular entities."
The court also noted that "absent the exemption, some church leaders would immediately be forced to violate their convictions against submitting aspects of their ministries to state licensing, or face legal action by the state. This would be an unseemly clash of church and state which the legislature might well wish to avoid."
Finally, the court emphasized that the civil courts are not equipped to determine whether the operation of childcare facilities by a church is a secular or religious activity, and therefore they cannot reject a church's claim that such facilities promote its religious purposes. Forest Hills Early Learning Center v. Grace Baptist Church, 846 F.2d 260 (4th Cir. 1988)