By Ray McAllister, PhD

Juan Cardenas enrolled his one-year-old child, Carlos, in a Christian daycare in Indianapolis, Indiana.  Soon after he began attending, he began to notice problems.  In February 2012, he went to pick up his child and the lights were out.  He mentioned it to the officials. Their response was to ask him if he wanted to pay for the lights.  He immediately decided to remove that child from the daycare, but before he could enroll Carlos somewhere else, drowned in the church’s baptismal font.  Juan tried to take legal action against the daycare and sought to file criminal charges but could not do so because the religiously-based daycare was considered a “ministry” and was exempt from the requirements that secular day care centers must follow.  The local prosecutors called the death a tragedy, not a crime.  They declared the problem a licensing issue and said that one could not hold any individual responsible for the general lack of supervision.  The Indiana Child Care Licensing Division, though, did prevent that daycare center from receiving any federal money.  The case never made it to court as a Juan Cardenas reached a settlement with the parties involved.

Sadly, in some states, religious day care centers have managed to escape state regulation and children have been found wandering outside the school due to lack of adequate supervision.  In some cases, children have sustained injuries such as concussions or broken bones, and parents have had little recourse.

Indiana is one of six states, including Alabama, Missouri, Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia that allow religious day care centers to operate without license or regular inspections.  Religious groups in these states have fended off litigation by arguing that the separation of church and state concept prohibits the government from regulating such institutions.  Dan Zacharias, head of the Old Dominion Association of Church Schools, often represents religious day care centers and has garnered support through a slippery-slope argument.  “Religious-exempt daycares are in my opinion among the safest and yet there’s a big push for greater control," he told the Virginia-Pilot. “Our fear is once that’s established, that can be used to control other things."

This approach needs to be reconsidered.

A Look at the Bible

What does the Bible say about these types of situations?  There may not be direct guidance concerning religious day care centers, but there are clear principles that are easy to follow when understood correctly.

First, there is Mark 7:10-13.  Here, Jesus addresses an aspect of inconsistency in the religious leadership of his time and place.  Jesus notes in verse 10 that Moses commanded the Israelites to honor their parents, but that some have found a loophole to avoid honoring their parents by saying that what gift might rightfully belong to the parents is “corban,” meaning devoted to God.  This way, one would not be as responsible for taking care of parents in need – after all, they could claim that God had first rights to whatever they would give their parents.

This concept may be a little difficult to comprehend, so let’s unpack it.  When Jesus was on the cross, his mother was, by then, a widow.  In John 19:26, 27, Jesus entrusted his mother into the care of John, one of Jesus’ disciples.  This shows that Jesus, even in His act of redeeming the world, did not neglect His parents in the name of religion.

Secondly, to understand what “corban” really means, one must look at the book of Leviticus.  “Corban” is a Hebrew word used in Leviticus 1, in verses such as verse 2, and it refers to, simply, an offering.  This type of offering would be a gift sacrifice someone would bring to the altar and offer for God.  While English translations do not use the word “corban,” in general, in these passages, that is the word in the Hebrew.  Apparently, people in Jesus’ day found ways to avoid taking responsibility for parents by declaring their goods as “corban,” and so such goods would be offered to God, supposedly, instead.  Jesus condemned this practice in Mark 7:10-13, describing it as a way to avoid concerning oneself with matters of human rights.

Another concept to consider is that of blemish-free sacrifices.  In many places in Leviticus, it is said that an offering must be without blemish, or defect. (Leviticus 1:3, 10)  This shows that what one gives in the name of God should be the best possible.  If one is taking care of children in the name of God, that care should be the best possible.  The establishment should be staffed with enough people to adequately see to the needs of the children, and children should never be put in danger.  The safety guidelines for daycare centers, when followed, do reduce the probability of tragedies taking place such as the one that Juan Cardenas faced.


The above information has broad implications when one considers the issue of religious day care centers and compliance with safety guidelines.  Anything done in the name of God must be conducted with the maximum level of quality and perfection.  It dishonors God to have His name attached to an establishment that endangers children.  Even though money can be saved by having a daycare center understaffed, the cost to the reputation of the church and Christianity is much greater.  People begin to wonder if this God and His people are really legitimate.

Secondly, there may be a need for some sort of external regulation of religious daycare centers.  If a religious family was starting a car factory, few people would take seriously the idea that they should be allowed to ignore EPA and safety guidelines because the company is religious.  While the government might not restrict that company’s right to put Bible verses in the owner’s manuals, the factory should still follow the guidelines for safety and environmental awareness that everyone else must follow.

This said, I would be willing to have religious institutions given the chance to develop their own internal regulating systems – and in the case of Indiana, a number of ministry day care centers, many raised their standards of care after the Cardenas case.  The vast majority of states do not seem to see a religious liberty conflict in requiring religious day care centers to be licensed and follow the same rules the other centers follow.  There could be extra material added to the secular guidelines requiring that what is taught at those centers not be analyzed or judged.  In the interest of the safety of the children, day care centers, many of which do accept government funding, should be subject to the same licensing guidelines, safety rules, and random, unannounced inspections that other daycare centers must face.   If religious institutions, that are supposed to be morally grounded enough to not need the government’s watchfulness, prove themselves unable or unwilling to live up to that standard, then their special freedom must be called into question.

On a common-sense level, it does not seem fair for an institution to receive government money without government regulation.  If a daycare wishes to function without a license, and the state will not stop this, that daycare should not be receiving money from the state. “A simple way to shield from government overreach is to say no to taxpayer dollars,” notes Dan Zacharias. “It boggles my mind why some religious daycares want to take federal money.  It holds us accountable.”

In addition, honesty must be enforced.  Parents should be notified if a religious daycare center is unlicensed and be able to trust that the place is well-staffed and will protect the safety of their children. Parents should be educated on how to check to make sure a daycare center, religious or secular, is complying with safety guidelines.

Ultimately, religious institutions must remember that their religiosity is not an excuse to get around the law, but a call to follow standards greater than any human law.  In so doing, all will see the love of Jesus truly manifest through His followers.



For more information:

"Religious day cares get freedom from oversight, with tragic results," – Amy Julia Harris, Reveal News, April 12, 2016

"Toddler's death in church day care reveals gaps in Indiana child care laws,"Robert King, Alex Campbell and Marisa Kwiatkowski, Indy Star, Nov. 4, 2017

"Religious day cares avoid licensing in Virginia, but many still take government subsidies," Katherine Hafner, The Virginian-Pilot,  November 21, 2017.


Dr. Ray McAllister is passionate about his relationship with God.  He enjoys spending time in prayer and Bible study, writing poetry, and serving others. Dr. McAllister is totally blind, and in 2010 was the first blind person to earn a Ph.D. from the seminary at Andrews University and the first totally blind person in the world to earn a doctorate in Hebrew Scriptures.  He teaches distance education religion classes for Andrews University and works as a licensed massage therapist in Michigan. In July 2016, Dr. McAllister and two other visually impaired Biblical scholars received the National Federation of the Blind's Jacob Bolotin Award for their work making Biblical language materials accessible to the blind.  Dr. McAllister sees his blindness as an opportunity to more deeply see the beauty of God's love and guide others to do the same.


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