Rules Are for Schmucks: The Littlest Victims of Religious Privilege

Three recent news items help demonstrate what makes sick sense, when you think about it. When one sector of society is aggrandized with excessive unaccountable power, those who suffer from its exercise are likely to be drawn disproportionately from the ranks of those least able to defend themselves—i.e., children.

The first item involves Haddonfield Friends School in New Jersey, and its ten-year old student Sky Rota. As happens sometimes, Sky’s educational progress was disrupted when he developed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), difficulties with listening and writing skills, and dyslexia.

Will Smith, Richard Branson, Michael Phelps, James Carville, Kinko’s founder Paul Orfalea, and JetBlue Airways founder David Neeleman are just a few of those who have suffered from ADHD and gone on to lead terrifically productive lives. Thomas Edison, Keira Knightley, George Patton, Erin Brockovich, Ted Turner, and Agatha Christie are just a few of those who suffered from dyslexia, but went on to achieve great things. Maybe Sky Rota will as well. I hope so.

Haddonfield Friends School, though, decided Sky was just a pain in the ass. So they expelled him. Problem solved.

Generally speaking, schools are not allowed to do this. Since 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has required most schools to attempt to deal constructively with students who develop disabilities like Sky has, not just kick them out. But ADA, like so many laws, has a religious exemption. And a federal court just ruled that Haddonfield Friends School qualifies for the exemption. According to the plaintiff, the school didn’t have Quaker teachers, didn’t have Quaker administrators, had very few Quaker students, no prayers, and no courses on Quakerism. No matter—the judge ruled it’s still “Quaker enough” to be able to kick out a child for the sin of being disabled.

Why is there a religious exemption from ADA? Does it somehow violate the tender consciences of religious folk to bend a little to help the disabled? No, it’s just money. The Association of Christian Schools International lobbied hard for this exemption, and won, because every dollar a Christian school might have to spend helping a child who becomes crippled is a dollar that can’t be spent on proselytizing, or bonuses for the principal, or whatever. What a vicious attack on the true meaning of religion that would have been!

Item number two involves the treatment of the unaccompanied minor children who have been flooding into the country—over 27,000 of them just this fiscal year. Leaving aside the question of whether it should be made more difficult for them to enter in the first place, they’re here, and even Donald Trump hasn’t suggested (I don’t think) that abandoned young children should just be left to fend for themselves.

Contracts involving lots of federal tax dollars have been awarded to a variety of religious organizations to care for these children until some sort of resolution can be achieved in each individual case. According to an extensive study done by the Center for American Progress, about a third of these children have been placed in the custody of religious organizations.

What happens then? Sex abuse. The Houston Chronicle found 101 “significant incident reports” of sexual abuse allegations against staff members of organizations caring for these children, just between 2011 and 2013. In a belated response, the government agency that oversees the process published a rule requiring, among other things, that contractors spending tax money to take care of these children provide emergency contraception to rape victims and “culturally competent care” to provide a safe and stable environment for LGBTQ youths.

A rule, though, that has a … [drum roll] … religious exemption. If you think the spirit in the sky says you don’t have to do any of that, then you don’t have to do it. All you have to do is refer the child to someone else, who will take care of the problem, while you keep merrily getting paid for providing care you are not actually providing.

Instead of basking in the glow of another religious exemption sought and won, though, the religious contractors are furious. Why? Because they don’t want to go to the bother of referring children to people who can actually help them. Somewhat similar to the employers in the Zubik case that the Supreme Court just abdicated its responsibility to decide, they suggest this would make them complicit in evil. It appears they have decided to simply ignore the rule, relying on the massive protection afforded them by the federal RFRA statute to do whatever they feel like, whenever they feel like it. The children, as always, are the losers.

Item number three: state regulation of daycare facilities. Or rather, the lack thereof, if you happen to have a…think hard now…religious exemption.

Five states—Alabama, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, and Virginia—have essentially no state regulation of religiously affiliated daycare operations at all. Eleven other states—Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah—provide for a half-assed level of protection for children, with religious daycare exempt from some but not all of the safety requirements that apply to everyone else. Requirements like employee credentials, hygienic diapering, safety and cleanliness of facilities, insurance coverage, and safety training for staff.

Of course, since these exempt daycare facilities are operated by people who are religious, they don’t need the same kind of oversight that mere money-grubbing businesses do. Right? If you believe that, then I’ve got some hot penny stock tips I’d be happy to sell you.

In Alabama, for example, some eighty previously secular daycare proprietors have reopened their facilities as regulation-free religious organizations, sometimes just days after regulators took the extreme step of shutting down their licensed daycares for egregious violations.

It was in Alabama that a toddler was left for two hours in the Holy Church of God daycare van in hundred degree heat in 2005. He died. It was also in Alabama that a woman named Deborah Stokes opened fourteen different religious daycare operations, one of them in a warehouse, another next to a porn store, where infants lay on the floor soaking in their own urine because she didn’t bother to acquire enough cribs. Ms. Stokes’ “church,” by the way, was one she founded herself.

In 1997, while George W. Bush was governor, the Texas legislature exempted religious daycares from standard licensing rules. After a few years, one study found that “the rate of confirmed abuse and neglect at alternatively-accredited facilities was 25 times higher than that of state-licensed facilities.” That was enough to persuade even Gov. Rick Perry, hardly a secular champion, to back repeal of the exemption.

Still, there remain those sixteen states that haven’t gotten the message yet, and continue to provide full or partial exemptions for religious day care operators. After all, the losers are just kids—not important people, like God experts.