by Tom Shaheen, V.P. for Policy

Yesterday, I testified for the Pennsylvania Family Institute on a panel before the state House Education Committee. We were there to support long-needed legislation – HB 1588 –  to protect church-affiliated educational preschool programs (including latchkey and Vacation Bible School programs) from unwarranted state intrusion. I was honored to join our allies at the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Keystone Christian Education Association, together representing hundreds of Catholic and Evangelical schools and ministries to young children across our Commonwealth. PA Family Institute was there for School Choice and Religious Freedom –  to add YOUR voice, the voice of parents who choose to utilize religious preschools and support schools and ministries. Read my testimony in full here.

This legislation now under consideration in Harrisburg is House Bill 1588  (by Stan Saylor of York County) and its senate companion bill, SB 1030 (Sen. Jake Corman, Centre County). We were there to ask the House Education Committee to advance the bill out of committee soon for full House consideration.  The personal highlight for me was when Rep. Scott Conklin, D-State College, asked attorney Phil Murren, a constitutional/religious freedom expert, for an explanation of his view of the  “separation of church and state.” Mr. Murren succintly pointed out (in my words) that the First Amendment was meant primarily to protect the church from the state, as opposed to the more popular notion of protecting the state (i.e. government) from the church.

Read the Associated Press story by Peter Jackson for more comments from our panel.

And here’s a Family Facts sheet for more background:

Why is this legislation necessary?

To ensure religious freedom in religious educational preschool facilities. Without the protection of this bill, the state Department of Public Welfare’s authority could allow for regulation of all aspects of a religious pre-school teaching ministry, including curriculum. HB 1588 or SB 1030 will ensure the state government does not have authority to impose content-based mandates on instruction at religious preschool and before- and after-school programs. The proposed bill protects the right of these institutions to follow their religious beliefs in their curriculum and staff requirements while maintaining the state’s responsibility to ensure standards of health and safety that protect staff and children.

What does this bill do?

Prevents government from regulating the content of religious education. Under this bill, the government cannot regulate the program, curriculum, staff qualifications (other than health and safety training), teaching or instruction of a religious preschool or childcare facility. Essentially, this allows these early childhood educational facilities to follow their religious teaching missions and ensures that parents have the option of a religious education for their children that is free from unnecessary government intrusion.

Maintains health and safety regulations. Early childhood educational facilities would still be required to comply with health and safety standards under the Department of Education and/or the Department of Public Welfare. These standards include measures like sanitation and building regulations, background check requirements, and child abuse recognition training.

Why this particular bill?

Pennsylvania already has similar protections in place for kindergarten, elementary schools, and high schools. HB 1588 would afford these religious freedom protections for pre-schools and before- and after-school programs. It is just as important that these early childhood educational programs remain free from unwarranted government intrusion.