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Church Preschool Sued for Failing to Accommodate Autistic Child
Seek legal counsel before deciding to exclude a disabled child from a school or preschool.
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Key point 8-14.2. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against disabled persons by privately-owned places of public accommodation. The Act exempts religious organizations from this provision. Some states and cities have enacted laws prohibiting discrimination against disabled persons in some places of public accommodation, and these laws may apply to religious organizations.

A federal court in Mississippi ruled that a church did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to accommodate an autistic child in its preschool program, but may have violated the federal Rehabilitation Act. From the time he was fifteen months old until age four, a child was enrolled in a church preschool. When he was three years old, the child was diagnosed as developmentally delayed, and shortly before he turned four he was diagnosed as autistic. At some point following the autism diagnosis the church informed the boy's mother (the "plaintiff") that the school and its teachers were not qualified, trained or equipped to educate the child and that he therefore would not be allowed to re-enroll for the following school year. The plaintiff withdrew her son from the preschool and enrolled him in a preschool program at a public elementary school. The plaintiff sued the church on several grounds, including:

  • Disability discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • Violation of the federal Rehabilitation Act.
  • Breach of contract based on the church's failure to honor its assurances and promises that it, and its instructors, were equipped, trained and qualified to educate an autistic child.

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