December 2012 Church & State | Editorial

The Tampa Bay Times in Florida recently ran a series of articles about religiously affiliated homes that serve troubled young people. Some of the revelations have been nothing short of stunning.

Because these facilities claim a religious tie, they are basically unregulated by the state. Many young people who were sent to these homes have raised horrific allegations of physical abuse and mistreatment. State officials have done nothing. They are allowing the homes to be overseen by a private Christian organization that applies lax standards.

The principle of separation of church and state means that the government does not meddle in the private business of religion. But that principle has never been interpreted to mean that religiously affiliated organizations can break the law.

In Florida, some of these homes have been accused of using extreme forms of corporal punishment on students as well as tolerating physical assault. There have also been allegations of sexual abuse.

The government has an obligation to protect its most vulnerable citizens. One way it does that is by exercising reasonable oversight over institutions that serve young people. At a bare minimum, it must ensure that these facilities are safe and don’t engage in abusive practices.

Florida officials have surrendered their responsibility in this area. Thirty years ago, legislators passed a law exempting religiously affiliated homes from regulation. Secular facilities are still subject to state oversight, but any home that claims to be religious is exempted.

State officials still collect reports of abuse at religious homes, but they obviously aren’t following up. Despite the horrific tales being told about some of these institutions, not one has been investigated or shuttered by the state.

Florida is not alone. In Alabama, religious child care centers are wholly unregulated by the state. They don’t even have to meet basic health and safety requirements. Other states have similarly lax enforcement of religiously affiliated institutions that serve children.

Remarkably, some of these institutions are subsidized by the taxpayer. In Florida, many of the homes for troubled youngsters receive public support through a voucher program aimed at students with special needs. These institutions are getting tax support yet remain unaccountable to the public.

Officials in Florida and elsewhere can find a way to apply judicious oversight of these institutions without meddling in the religious side of their operations. For example, the government should stay out of religious curriculum decisions but should crack down on homes that rely on pain and violence to instill discipline.

The young people of Florida deserve nothing less.