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Reveal: The religious freedom loophole

In Featured, Reveal

By Julia B. Chan, Reveal

When most people think of the First Amendment, they think of the freedom of speech – but that’s actually the second part of the clause. The first part states that all Americans have the freedom of religion.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”

So what does that mean, exactly? In America, we have the freedom to believe in whatever or whomever we want. According to the law, no one religion is supposed reign supreme – nor can anyone be prohibited from exercising their beliefs. But that phrase “free exercise” is a broad one. What happens when religious groups take advantage of these special freedoms to make money, skirt rules or hurt children?

This hour of Reveal explores the tricky territory of religious freedom and how different groups have exploited this loophole.

(Image: Reveal explores how different religious groups have taken advantage of their special freedoms to make money, skirt rules and hurt children. Credit: Anna Vignet for Reveal)


In our first segment, reporter Amy Julia Harris and producer Delaney Hall go to Alabama to follow the trail of a woman who’s been able to open almost a dozen problematic day care centers by claiming she’s a church.

Some background: In most states, all day care facilities are licensed and have to meet basic standards of safety and care for children. But in 16 states, church-run day cares have looser rules. Check out the map to see whether religious day cares in your state have to follow basic rules.


As you can see, in Alabama, there are virtually no rules for religious day cares. The state doesn’t even have the authority to investigate problems, let alone stop them. Alabama children have been beaten, locked in closets and wandered off alone because they were poorly supervised – and the day cares have stayed open.


In our second segment, we head to Nashville, Tennessee, with reporter Dan Weissmann to hear the story of how one man cited religious freedom to try to keep his sex club open.


And finally, reporter Abigail Keel takes us to Heartland, a privately owned Christian community in Missouri. The area is most well known for its school, and parents from all over the country send their children for a Bible-based Christian education. At Heartland, teachers don’t spare the rod – they use it. And the state can’t investigate because the school claims a religious exemption. So who’s making sure kids are safe?


Reveal is a weekly radio program produced by The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. For more, check out our website and subscribe to our podcast.