Are major changes coming for church "day camps"?

AB 1737 advances in the State Senate

Max H Herr

6/30/20222 min read

In the current legislative session, the future of AB 1737 – which would create a new set of rules for “Children’s Camps” – defined as any “camp that offers daytime or overnight experiences administered by adults who provide social, cultural, educational, recreational, or artistic programming to more than five children between 3 and 17 years of age for five days or longer” – continues to be uncertain following the most recent round of amendments in the State Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee. The bill, which originated in the State Assembly, has now been passed to the Senate Public Services Committee. The text of the bill, in its currently amended form, dramatically scales back the original changes to the Health and Safety Code, but it still portends serious, and potentially expensive, challenges for churches, especially smaller, inner-city and rural churches.

If the bill passes the Public Services Committee, it will likely head to the Senate floor for a vote, where it will probably pass. But then it would have to return to the Assembly for approval of the final amended version. If the Assembly were to amend the bill further, it would have to return to the Senate for concurrence. A final bill must reach the governor’s desk by September 18. The governor has 12 days to sign or veto a bill on or before September 30. If a bill is not signed or vetoed within 12 days before October 1, it will still become law without the governor’s signature.

As amended on June 21, the bill would direct the Director of the State Health and Human Services Agency to coordinate with the Director of Social Services and to “lead the development and implementation of a master plan for children’s camp safety, to serve as a blueprint for state government, local government, and the private sector to implement strategies and partnerships that promote health and safety in children’s camps across California. The bill would require the secretary and director to convene an agency workgroup for camp safety, with specified membership, to advise the secretary and director in developing and issuing the master plan, and a children’s camp safety stakeholder advisory committee to provide advice and input to the administration on the development of the master plan. The bill would require the State Department of Social Services to submit a report to the Governor and the Legislature by January 31, 2024, identifying the recommendations of the workgroup and advisory committee and outlining the master plan.”

The bill includes some of the same language as AB 506, which now applies to all churches that provide services to children under age 18. However, if adopted into law, AB 1737 would further impair the ability of churches to conduct programs such as Vacation Bible School, Summer Music Camp, and Bible reading clubs, by defining children's programs lasting five or more consecutive days as “Children’s Camps" – with or without traditional overnight "camping" activities. Such “camps” would have to comply with a host of special requirements normally applicable to commercial campgrounds and require local health officials to inspect and approve church facilities, not to mention compliance with any new regulations adopted.

The saving grace in the legislation in its most recent form is that no changes will be required before mid-2024 at the earliest, because the bill would require several “working groups” and “committees” to recommend an outline for a “master plan” to the two agency leaders and to the governor and legislature by the end of January 2024. Then proposed regulations would have to be written and go through an administrative process of public comment before their final adoption. And “camps” that last only four days would not be subject to the current proposal.

Nevertheless, while the concern for the health and safety of children attending “camps” is laudable, the overly broad approach is once again a seeming knee-jerk reaction to a specific incident and the expansion of “nanny-state” politics instead of specifically targeted regulations.