The biblical principle of loving your neighbor is threaded into the life of churches. Often, however, churches are failing to love well those in their midst when they inadequately provide accommodation for and inclusion of individuals with disabilities.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides guidelines for what is necessary for organizations to provide accommodation to individuals with disabilities. While churches must comply with portions of the ADA, churches are exempt from the ADA as it relates to public accommodation.
“It’s Title lll, Section 36.102 (e) that provides that the provisions of this title shall not apply to religious organizations,” Attorney John Anthony explains. “The statute basically has a blanket exemption for public accommodation for religious organizations or entities controlled by religious organizations.”
While churches are exempt from complying with the public accommodation provision of the ADA, many individuals close to the disabled community encourage compliance anyway.
There are “a lot of reasons” for exempt organizations to comply with the ADA, says Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, President and CEO of RespectAbility, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of people living with disabilities. Mizrahi says:
I’m a firm believer that there’s an equal spark of God in every human being and that every soul is equal and to discriminate against people with disabilities is to deny somebody’s soul, to deny somebody’s faith, to worth and value as they connect to God and spirituality and their faith community.
Mizrahi points out that inclusion of individuals with disabilities has a positive impact upon the church: “The second thing is that faith communities are much stronger and better when they are welcoming and respectful of all people.”
There are practical reasons for churches complying with the ADA, too. By doing so, churches have the opportunity to provide an inclusive environment for a large group of people.
“One out of every five American has a disability, and most disabilities—most people with disabilities—you can’t see their disability,” Mizrahi explains. “It is a massive loss for churches if they don’t have people with disabilities in their congregation.”
It’s not just these one-in-five Americans who are affected when churches do not comply with ADA guidelines. Churches should also consider that failing to provide accommodation to individuals with disabilities also effects the families of those individuals.
According to Mizrahi, more than half (52%) of Americans have a loved one with a disability.
For families with a loved one with a disability, a church’s lack of inclusion of individuals with disabilities could be a deterrent, Mizrahi says.
“Nobody wants to be a part of a congregation that doesn’t welcome one of their family members,” Mizrahi states. “It definitely hurts church attendance quite significantly if they don’t make an effort on inclusion of people with disabilities.”
Churches can look to the ADA to understand how they would need to provide adequate accommodations for individuals with disabilities if they wanted to comply with the ADA standards despite doing so being optional for churches.
“The core thing about people with disabilities is the concept of equality, inclusion, and respect, so the law is really about access that is more physical in many ways,” Mizrahi says.
One step that churches can take is to address with the individual their needs relating to their disability and ask how the church can provide a more inclusive environment for that individual, Mizrahi offers.
For some churches, compliance with the ADA will happen if the church allows an outside entity to utilize the church’s facility. “If the property is used or rented by a nonreligious organization,” Anthony explains, then that organization will “have to meet the ADA requirements.”
If, for example, a charter school were to use the church facility and make changes to it in order for the school to become ADA compliant, the church’s compliance status would be affected.
“It is a way for the church to become ADA compliant,” Anthony explains.
Even though they are not required to comply with the ADA’s regulations relating to public accommodation, churches should consider voluntarily complying when they have the opportunity. One way churches can do that is by keeping the ADA guidelines in mind when making changes to their facility.
Anthony offers the following advice for churches that want to comply:
If you’re building something or remodeling, it’s really important to be in communication with your contractor, letting them know that you want to be ADA compliant and letting them help you figure out what are the local regulations and state regulations that they need to comply with to make it that way.
The concern that providing accommodation to individuals with disabilities will pose a large financial cost to the church should not deter churches from providing accommodation. As Mizrahi points out, providing accommodation does not always pose a large financial expense.
For churches, voluntary compliance with the ADA should not be seen as a burden but viewed as an opportunity to reach out to individuals with disabilities and enrich their experiences within their faith communities.
Churches can learn more about the ADA and (non-mandated) compliance by visiting the government website ADA.gov. RespectAbility has a webpage dedicated to helping faith communities be inclusive of people with disabilities.
Elizabeth Jackson is the editorial intern for the Church Law & Tax Team.
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