The Alabama House of Representatives on Thursday approved a compromise day care bill that will require yearly inspections for church-run facilities and licenses for ones that take government subsidies.
Representatives approved the child care regulation legislation on an 88-9 vote, sending the bill to the Senate for consideration.
Alabama has had a longstanding law exempting faith-based day cares from state licensure and regulations such as maximum child-to-worker ratios. The compromise bill is far short of the original intent to require all day cares to be licensed, but child care advocates called it a significant step forward in seeing what is going on inside the facilities.
"Up until now, those centers had no overnight, and now there will be inspections," said Melanie R. Bridgeforth, executive director of VOICES for Alabama's Children.
VOICES for Alabama's Children said the state is one of seven that broadly exempt faith-based day cares from regulation.
Under the bill, the exempt centers will have to submit information to the state on child-to-worker ratios, staff and other information. The Alabama Department of Human Resources will inspect the exempt facilities once annually or if they have reason to suspect a problem.
"At least we can go in and see what is going on. Before, we weren't able to see what was going on," said Rep. Pebblin Warren, the bill's sponsor.
Warren had hoped to do away with the exemption she said left children vulnerable to neglect. But the proposal got pushback from some churches, who argued that improvements could be made without abolishing the exemption.
Eighty-six children fell sick at an exempt Montgomery day care in 2015 after eating food that had been left out overnight. The operator of the facility had opened several day cares that came under scrutiny for neglect allegations but was exempt from state licensing because she claimed an affiliation with a church.
About half of the state's day cares are uninspected, according to the Department of Human Resources. Alabama has 998 licensed centers and 943 exempt centers.
The bill would also require licensure for any facility that takes government subsidies.
Bridgeforth said that will require 497 day cares to become licensed or stop taking the subsidies.
The bill got broad support on the House floor.
Rep. Paul Beckman, R-Prattville, said child care regulations did not infringe on religious liberties.
"This nonsense I hear that it's our constitutional rights. We all have to comply with the man," he said.