The legislation aired at a House Education Committee hearing would limit the government's reach to matters involving health and safety, while barring state regulation of program content, staff qualifications and training.
Proponents say the bill sponsored by Rep. Stan Saylor, R-York, is an attempt to head off potential clashes between religious liberties and the policies of the Department of Public Welfare, which regulates church-run preschool and similar programs as child-care facilities.
"Let's protect religious liberty for parents and their children—and the ministries that serve them," said Thomas Shaheen of the Pennsylvania Family Institute.
Philip J. Murren, counsel for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, said the bill would put preschools and similar facilities on even footing with church-affiliated K-12 schools, whose regulation by the Education Department was similarly limited by 1986 changes in state law.
Murren said Department of Public Welfare regulations authorize its inspectors to assess whether church-run facilities promotes pupils' emotional, cognitive and social development, and whether they promote qualities such as social confidence and self-esteem.
"Religious entities properly take alarm when their religious freedoms and their very right to exist are made to depend upon the sufferance of government," he said.
The bill would apply to religious pre-kindergarten programs, preschools, nursery schools, before- and after-school programs and school vacation programs. It would not affect any church-sponsored program for infants and toddlers.
It would allow the state to impose certain requirements, including background checks for staff members, mandatory reporting of child abuse and staff training necessary to prevent threats to students' health or safety.
Public Welfare Secretary Beverly Mackereth and acting Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq had been scheduled to testify on the bill but met privately with committee leaders before the hearing instead, Gov. Tom Corbett's spokesman said.
"They made the commitment to work with the Legislature to further refine the bill," spokesman Jay Pagni said.
The only opposition came from the nonprofit Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, which had helped negotiate the legislation but withheld its support because the bill would keep the facilities under the Department of Public Welfare instead of shifting the responsibility to the Education Department.
Murren said he has no objection to shifting the jurisdiction to Education.