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Religious groups raise concerns over Biden's child care plan: 'It will be detrimental to our ability to participate'

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Conservative religious groups are working to have a non-discrimination provision removed from President Joe Biden's proposed universal child care plan, arguing the way the bill is written threatens their ability to serve families with young children.

American leaders of the Catholic Church and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America say that the strings attached to the pre-kindergarten and child care plans in Biden's $1.85 trillion "Build Back Better" plan could force religious groups to violate their conscience rights. These groups fear that non-discrimination language in the bill — language supported by most congressional Democrats — could lock them out of providing child care to families in need, the New York Times reports.

The language is typical for federal legislation. It requires that any organization that receives funding from the government or participates in a federal program comply with federal non-discrimination statutes. These laws would forbid a Christian day care center, for example, to refuse to hire a gay employee or an atheist.

Biden's child care plan would spend nearly $400 billion to aid states in developing universal pre-K and child care programs over six years. The plan aims to ensure that four-person households earning up to $300,000 annually spend no more than 7% of their yearly income on child care. Any family that earns less than 75% of their state's median income would get state-funded care and would pay nothing out of pocket.

Organizations with a religious affiliation make up a substantial number of early childhood care providers in the United States, serving as many as 53% of families, the Times reports. The groups lobbying Congress to amend the child care plan say the non-discrimination language could hurt their ability to teach religious content, force them to compromise all-boys or all-girls programs, and prohibit them from selecting staff who adhere to their religious precepts.

"It will be detrimental to our ability to participate," Jennifer Daniels, the associate director for public policy at the United States Conference of Bishops, told the paper in an interview. "It would impact our ability to stick with our Catholic mission in a variety of ways. We've worked really hard to make our concerns known."

Democratic lawmakers counter that the anti-discrimination language is needed to ensure that groups receiving federal money do not discriminate.

"The Build Back Better Act must not allow government-funded discrimination — in employment or in the provision of services to participants — in publicly funded programs," Reps. Robert Scott (D-Va.) and Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) wrote in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Scott is the chairman of the Education and Labor Committee and the author of the child care plan.

"We believe that allowing such discrimination financed with public funds collected from all taxpayers is wrong," the lawmakers wrote. "We are asking you to oppose any effort to remove or change the nondiscrimination provisions included in the child care and universal preschool provisions of the Build Back Better Act."

According to the Times, Scott's legislation would change how child care providers are treated under federal law:

At issue is what's arguably a major change the bill would make in how the federal government treats institutions that receive aid for the care of small children. For decades, low-income families have received funds from the Child Care and Development Block Grant program that they may use at a variety of child care centers. But since those centers are not necessarily considered direct recipients of federal funds, they are not bound by some nondiscrimination laws.

A similar situation exists for religious elementary schools that receive money through local school systems to educate low-income students.

Mr. Scott's legislation would categorize any prekindergarten or child care center that participates in the new program as a federal financial recipient, requiring it to either comply with nondiscrimination laws or turn away families, the conservative religious organizations argue.

Left-wing civil rights groups support the change, contending that religious groups should not have a right to discriminate by claiming religious liberty protections.

"Who do they want to shut out? Is it the lesbian mom you want to shut out?" said Liz King, the director of the Education Equity Program at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. "Is it the children with autism you want to shut out? Since at least 1964, the law and basic principle has been that federal funds cannot be used to discriminate. No one should have to subsidize their own discrimination."

But the religious groups have an advocate in Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a moderate who has reportedly expressed their concerns in private meetings with his colleagues. According to the Times, Manchin told his fellow Democratic lawmakers federal funding would greatly help religiously affiliated groups provide child care and insisted that they not be prevented from participating in Biden's program.

Manchin's argument "found widespread agreement" among Democratic senators, but the child care plan has not yet been amended.

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