Legal Requirements for Church Child Care Centers

Court rules that state law requiring church-operated child care facilities to be licensed, and prohibiting spanking, do not violate a church’s constitutional rights.

Does a state law requiring church-operated child care facilities to be licensed, and prohibiting spanking, violate a church's constitutional rights?

No, said a New Mexico appeals court. A Baptist church operated a child care center pursuant to a state license for many years. The church has a policy, which it believes is mandated by the Bible, permitting teachers to spank children who misbehave. Ultimately, however, the church's pastor concluded that submitting the child care center to state licensure amounted to a subordination of the center to the secular state rather than to Jesus Christ.

Accordingly, the pastor refused to renew the center's license. The state filed suit against the church, seeking a court order prohibiting the church from any further operation of the center without a license. The church responded by arguing that application of the child care licensing law to the church's facility violated the first amendment's guaranty of religious freedom. A trial court disagreed with the church's position, and the church appealed.

A state appeals court also rejected the church's position and agreed with the state that the church could not operate its child care facility without a state license. The court relied on a 1990 decision of the United States Supreme Court (Employment Division v. Smith). Prior to 1990, the courts generally allowed interference with religious practices only if a "compelling state interest" could be shown. However, in Smith, the Supreme Court said that a compelling state interest is not required to justify the application of "neutral laws of general applicability" to religious organizations.

The New Mexico appeals court concluded that the state law requiring child care centers to be licensed was a neutral law of general applicability that could be applied to a church without any need to demonstrate a "compelling state interest." The same conclusion applied to the law's anti-spanking provision. The court refused to address the church's claim that its rights under the New Mexico Constitution were violated by the licensing requirement, since this argument had not made at trial and "was made so late in the appellate process." Health Services Division v. Temple Baptist Church, 814 P.2d 130 (N.M. App. 1991).

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