Biden Stimulus Bill May Drive Catholic Schools Out of Early Childhood Services, School Officials Say

Thomas Carroll, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Boston, told the Register the bill’s proposed anti-discrimination provisions would be ‘catastrophic.’

Students who are all winners of the St. Joseph art contest stand alongside Thomas Carroll, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Boston.
Students who are all winners of the St. Joseph art contest stand alongside Thomas Carroll, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Boston. (photo: Archdiocese of Boston)

BOSTON — Catholic school officials are clamoring for changes to a proposed federal stimulus bill, saying that federal nondiscrimination rules may drive them out of early childhood education.

“The rules as they’re written now would be catastrophic. It basically would force us to pull out of preschool and child care,” said Thomas Carroll, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Boston, in a Nov. 30 telephone interview with the Register.

At issue is a portion of President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better bill that would provide about $400 billion in federal funds for child care and pre-kindergarten.

Catholic and other religious schools would theoretically be able to receive such funds — but they might also have to comply with federal rules prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and religion, among other things.

“It’s putting religious institutions in a position in which, if they want to get the money, or to accept money that goes to parents, they have to enter a Faustian bargain in which they agree to basically give up their faith. In the Catholic Church, we have 2,000 years of Church teaching. We’re not giving it up to get federal money for child care or pre-K,” Carroll said during a roundtable discussion in Washington on Wednesday, Dec. 1, sponsored by U.S. Senate Republicans.

Supporters of the bill, which include most Democrats, say it would greatly expand access to early childhood services, helping both children and their parents, while also promoting principles of fairness.

Opponents, including many Republicans, see an attack on religious institutions and other private providers in favor of public programs and public schools.

Childcare providers and operators of evangelical Protestant schools argued during the roundtable discussion that they won’t be able to compete with secular providers if they don’t qualify for federal funds, under the rules as currently written.

“This bill, as currently written, is designed to accomplish exactly what you’ve warned us of. It’s designed to take faith-based organizations out of the childcare business. It’s designed to minimize the number of childcare options in every state, rural or urban,” said Sen. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, who chaired yesterday’s roundtable.


Sexuality Nondiscrimination Provisions

A particular concern of Catholic education leaders is that in order to gain eligibility for the federal funding, Catholic schools would be required to support “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” policies that directly conflict with their religious beliefs. 

“The provisions of most obvious concern include nondiscrimination provisions related to sexual orientation and gender identity that could create religious-freedom issues for religious providers,” Michael Sheedy, the executive director of the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, stated in a letter he sent to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, The New York Times reported.

Supporters of the bill as currently written counter that they welcome religious-based providers, but that recipients of federal funds must not discriminate.

Two members of the Congressional Black Caucus wrote U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last month arguing against any changes in the bill to accommodate faith-based institutions.

“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. We believe that allowing such discrimination financed with public funds collected from all taxpayers is wrong,” states the Nov. 2 letter, signed by Democratic House members Joyce Beatty of Ohio and Bobby Scott of Virginia. “We are asking you to oppose any effort to remove or change the nondiscrimination provisions included in the childcare and universal preschool provisions of the Build Back Better Act … as well as any effort to expand exemptions from civil-rights laws for religious providers that would permit any discrimination with public funds.”

Another supporter of the bill, Liz King, director of the Education Equity Program at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told the Register that federal funds need to promote offerings that are open to all.

“There’s a fundamental question around fairness and equal opportunity and commitment to being welcoming and inclusive,” King said in a telephone interview. “We are thankful that this is an opportunity for providers to find themselves called, whether through faith or whatever motivation, to serve all families.”


Gospel Requires Making Choices

Yet what some call discrimination others say is essential to evangelizing.

Father Jay Mello is pastor of two parishes in Fall River, a city on the south coast of Massachusetts that is the seat of the Diocese of Fall River. One of them, St. Michael’s, operates a Catholic school for 232 students through eighth grade, including 41 in pre-kindergarten (ages 3 and 4).

The school does not currently have students whose parents are receiving federal funds, but it had a handful several years ago, he said.

Father Mello said he requires teachers at the school to submit a letter from their pastor each year stating that they are weekly Massgoers and are generally living according to Catholic moral teachings — which include not engaging in sexual relationships outside of marriage. That’s essential to providing parents and students an authentic Catholic experience, he said.

“The people I hire need to buy into the mission of the institution. And the mission of the institution is the Gospel,” Father Mello said.

He added that it’s not just an intellectual matter: “The mission is not just what you teach. The mission is how you live your life.”

Supporters of the bill say critics are overstating its likely effects on religious institutions.

King, in a follow-up email message, cited a portion of the bill concerning federal assistance to childcare providers that states: “Nothing in this section shall preclude the use of such certificates for sectarian childcare services if freely chosen by the parent.”

“Religious providers have participated in the Head Start program and have received federal grants under other programs for years and years. There is no expectation or intention that that would change with this bill,” King said by email. “No individual or organization is being asked to walk away from their faith.”

A House Democratic aide, who requested anonymity, told the Register the bill welcomes religious-based institutions.

“Meeting the demand for affordable childcare and universal preschool is a major focus of the Build Back Better Act. Accordingly, the bill gives parents the flexibility to choose a provider that best fits their needs — including faith-based providers — and it ensures faith-based providers can receive grant funding to build their capacity. Faith-based providers are not just eligible for the funding in this proposal, they can be an important part of the solution for children and families,” the Democratic aide said by email.


Devil in the Regulations?

Religious school officials are not assuaged by such reassurances.

The devil is in the regulations that would flow from the legislation if it is approved, said Michael Deegan, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of New York, which includes New York City and seven counties north of the city.

“It is so vague, that I feel that our opponents — meaning those who don’t want Catholic schools to get any federal funding — will find a way to prevent us from attaining this money,” Deegan told the Register in a telephone interview.

Catholic schools in the archdiocese of New York currently serve about 5,000 kids in prekindergarten in 60 schools, Deegan said. The programs are funded by New York City and the state of New York. He expects that if the federal stimulus bill passes, local and state officials will instead use federal funds for the early childhood programs — which will come with federal rules attached that Catholic institutions may find unacceptable. The result, he said, will be the end of a Catholic option for these services in New York.

“This has everything to do with two intersecting principles: parental choice and religious liberty,” Deegan said. “There is no tolerance in many public-school sectors across the country to work to ensure that parents have the right to freely choose where they want to send their children. And they certainly in no way support the religious liberty that we are entitled to, that we have been denied in the past.”

The bill has drawn the attention of supporters of school choice.

“The Founding Fathers protected religious liberty in the Constitution to safeguard people of all faiths from the encroachments of the federal government,” said Jamie Gass, director of education policy and research at Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston that supports school choice, in an email message. “The Biden administration and congressional leaders need to proceed with extreme caution when trying to use federal dollars to impose a secular agenda on a sacred educational realm that’s defined by what the Framers termed the ‘dictates of conscience.’”

Father Mello said he feels bad for families who might need federal assistance to send their children to a Catholic school, but that if it comes to it, Catholic schools should walk away from the federal program if such funding would compromise their identity.

“I think: Keep your money. We don’t want it. Because if you’re going to play these games to try to change who we are, keep your money,” Father Mello said, before alluding to both Matthew 6:24 and Joshua 24:15.

“Our Lord is clear: You cannot serve God and mammon. As for me and my school, we will serve the Lord.”