Court: ADA Case Brought Against Religious School Allowed to Proceed

A federal court refused to dismiss a mother’s lawsuit, stating the school’s denominational ties—and possible exemption from the federal law—must be proven.

Key Point 8-14.2 . The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) 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 Louisiana ruled that a student with cerebral palsy could proceed with the lawsuit she brought against a religious school under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), even though the ADA generally exempts religious organizations from its requirements.

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Plaintiff requested help with accommodations

A student with cerebral palsy and periventricular leukomalacia (PVL) (“Plaintiff”) attended the school for eight years, and then was home-schooled for the seventh grade during the COVID-19 pandemic. She then sought to again attend the school for the eighth grade.

During her previous attendance at the school, the Plaintiff said she received accommodations for her physical disabilities, including being accompanied every day by an aide compensated by her family. This aide helped her with daily activities, including navigating the hallways between classes, carrying her materials to and from classes, carrying her lunch tray, helping her cut her food, and assisting her in using the bathroom.

In addition to her physical limitations, the Plaintiff’s PVL has caused a brain injury that makes it difficult to retain and quickly recall math facts. Up through the sixth grade, the school accommodated this disability by allowing her to use a basic, four-function calculator during math classes.

During the seventh grade, the Plaintiff’s mother arranged for home-schooling because the Plaintiff’s cerebral palsy made her exceptionally vulnerable to COVID-19, and no vaccine was available at the time.

When her mother reached out to the school to make arrangements for the eighth grade, officials informed her that the Plaintiff would have to re-apply for admission.

Officials also said the Plaintiff would need to take the Independent School Entrance Exam (“ISEE”)—and without the use of a calculator because the school eliminated calculator use as an accommodation for any disabled students—and the Plaintiff had previously been allowed to use one only because she was “grandfathered in.”

Administrators for the ISEE specifically authorize the calculator as an accommodation for persons with disabilities such as the Plaintiff’s. When this fact was brought to the school’s attention, officials said the school would permit the Plaintiff to use it for the ISEE test, but if admitted, she could not use it for her future course work or tests at the school.

Plaintiff’s mother alleged that the school did not want to provide physical accommodations for her disabled daughter and denied the calculator accommodation to make it impossible for her to attend and succeed there.

The Plaintiff subsequently filed a lawsuit under the ADA in a federal court in Louisiana.

School: Religious affiliation exempts it from ADA

The school asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that because it is a religious institution, it is not subject to the ADA. As a part of the request, the school asked the court to take “judicial notice” of the school’s website, which the school believes demonstrates its affiliations with the Episcopal Church.

Under Rule 201 of the Federal Rules of Evidence, a court can take judicial notice of “a fact that is not subject to reasonable dispute.”

The court first noted the way the religious exemption works under the ADA:

Title III of the ADA provides that “no individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases (or leases to), or operates a place of public accommodation.” Private elementary and secondary schools are encompassed by the statute. However, religious schools are exempted from the ADA. … The religious exemption is read broadly:

‘The ADA’s exemption of religious organizations and religious entities controlled by religious organizations is very broad, encompassing a wide variety of situations. Religious organizations and entities controlled by religious organizations have no obligations under the ADA. Even when a religious organization carries out activities that would otherwise make it a public accommodation, the religious organization is exempt from ADA coverage.

Thus, if a church itself operates a day care center, a nursing home, a private school, or a diocesan school system, the operations of the center, home, school, or schools would not be subject to the requirements of the ADA. … The religious entity would not lose its exemption merely because the services provided were open to the general public.

The test is whether the church or other religious organization operates the public accommodation, not which individuals receive the public accommodation’s service.’

The court then turned its attention to the school’s request for judicial notice about its religious affiliation, which would then presumably make it exempt from the ADA.

The central issue for establishing the religious exemption in this case, according to the court, “is whether the face of the complaint establishes that (the school) is operated by the Episcopal Church.”

The court concluded:

A review of the complaint demonstrates that that fact is not established on its face. Seemingly acknowledging this, (the school) requests the court to take “judicial notice” of its website, which it contends reflects its close connection to the Episcopal church. … The court declines to take judicial notice of facts contained in the website because the defendant’s website does not meet the reliability standards required [for judicial notice].

In large part a marketing and recruitment tool, it is not in the nature of the official government or agency websites of which courts typically take judicial notice. Accordingly, (the school) is not entitled to dismissal of the ADA claim.

The types of judicial notice allowed under the rules of evidence instead must be ones “generally known” within its jurisdiction or ones “accurately and readily determined from sources whose accuracy cannot reasonably be questioned.”

The school “seeks to introduce the website to establish a fact which is in issue — whether (the school) is operated by a religious entity — which is not resolved on the face of the complaint. Accordingly, (the school) is not entitled to dismissal of the ADA claim.”

What this means for churches

Title III of the ADA prohibits discrimination against disabled persons by privately owned places of public accommodation. The ADA states that “no individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases (or leases to), or operates a place of public accommodation.”

The ADA defines the term public accommodation to include 12 types of facilities, including auditoriums or other places of public gathering, private schools (including nursery, elementary, secondary, undergraduate, and postgraduate), and day care centers.

The ADA defines discrimination in public accommodations broadly to include denying an individual the opportunity to use the accommodations on the basis of a disability, and failure to make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures, if necessary to make the accommodations available to disabled individuals.

The ADA specifies that its public accommodation provisions “shall not apply to … religious organizations or entities controlled by religious organizations, including places of worship.” Accordingly, most types of religious organizations are excluded from the prohibition of discrimination in places of public accommodation.

The House Report to the ADA at the time of the law’s passage specifies that “places of worship and schools controlled by religious organizations are among those organizations and entities which fall within this exemption.”

The House Report further specifies that “activities conducted by a religious organization or an entity controlled by a religious organization on its own property, which are open to nonmembers of that organization or entity are included in this exemption.”

The federal court’s decision in Louisiana does not necessarily mean the school is not exempt from the ADA, although the decision certainly creates such a possibility.

Instead, the school now must go further into the litigation in order to provide evidence establishing facts that show it is operated by the Episcopal Church. Churches that operate schools, as well as religious schools with ties to denominations, should consult with qualified local legal counsel about the specific ways to publicly demonstrate their religious affiliations beyond merely marketing and recruitment tools, such as websites and brochures.

It is also important to note that, while religious organizations are not subject to the ADA’s public accommodation provisions, they still may be subject to similar provisions under state or local law. Local legal counsel can help determine the existence of religious exemptions, and the steps needed to comply with the laws in the event no exemptions exist.

E.R. v. St. Martin’s Episcopal School, 2022 WL 558168 (E.D. La. 2022)

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Appeals Court Refused to Dismiss a Former Employee’s Wrongful Termination Lawsuit

The trial court failed to conduct a “fact-sensitive and claim specific” analysis to determine if the First Amendment bars the former employee’s claims against a Roman Catholic archdiocese.

Key point 8-12.01. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers engaged in commerce and having at least 15 employees from discriminating in any employment decision on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender, or religion. Religious organizations are exempt from the ban on religious discrimination but not from the other prohibited forms of discrimination.

Key point 8-21.02. Many state civil rights laws prohibit employers with a specified number of employees from discriminating in any employment decision on the basis of the sexual orientation of an employee or applicant for employment. Such laws generally exempt religious organizations.

An Indiana court refused to dismiss a former employee’s wrongful termination lawsuit against a Roman Catholic archdiocese on the ground that the trial court had yet to undertake a “fact-sensitive and claim specific” analysis that must precede analysis of whether the First Amendment bars the plaintiff’s claims against the archdiocese.


A high school (the “school”) located in Indianapolis is affiliated with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis. In 2006, the school extended a teaching contract to a language and social studies teacher (the “plaintiff”).

Over the ensuing decade, the school renewed the plaintiff’s teaching contract annually. In 2017, the plaintiff married his same-sex partner, who is a teacher at a Jesuit preparatory school (the “preparatory school”). The school last renewed the plaintiff’s teaching contract on May 21, 2019, for the 2019–2020 academic year.

On May 24, 2019, the school’s president informed the plaintiff that the archbishop of the archdiocese would soon require the school to “adopt and enforce morals clause language used in teacher contracts at Archdiocesan schools” in order for the school to retain its status as a recognized Catholic institution. The archdiocese issued the same directive to both the school and the preparatory school. The morals clause language provides as follows:

The Archdiocese recognizes that many teachers who contribute positively to the mission of the Church in forming young people through our Catholic schools are not practicing Catholics. For faculty members of other faith traditions, there remains an expectation that, regardless of their personal religious affiliations and beliefs, they will become knowledgeable of Catholic Church teachings, will be credible witnesses of the Catholic faith and will be models of Christian values. Catholic schools are ministries of the Catholic Church, and faculty members are vital to sharing the mission of the Church. Teachers are expected to be role models and are expressly charged with leading their students toward Christian maturity and with teaching the word of God. As role models for students, the personal conduct of every teacher and staff member must convey and be supportive of the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Determining whether a faculty member is conducting him/herself in accordance with the teachings of the Catholic Church is an internal Church/School matter and is at the discretion of the pastor, administrator, and/or Archbishop.

In a letter dated June 20, 2019, the preparatory school declined to terminate the employment of the plaintiff’s spouse. On June 21, 2019, the Archbishop decreed that the preparatory school could no longer designate itself as “Catholic”; the archdiocese no longer recognized the preparatory school as a Catholic institution; and the preparatory school would be omitted from The Official Catholic Directory.

On June 23, 2019, the school terminated the plaintiff’s teaching contract. That same day, the school issued a letter to parents, teachers, and staff that outlined the situation.

The plaintiff: archdiocese interfered with his contractual and employment relationship

On July 10, 2019, the plaintiff filed a complaint alleging that the archdiocese intentionally interfered with his contractual relationship and with his employment relationship with the school.

In his complaint, the plaintiff alleged that: (1) he is a homosexual male, who has been in a same-sex marriage since 2017; (2) he was under a teaching contract at the school in the 2019–2020 calendar year; (3) the archdiocese issued a directive, wherein the school was required to adopt and enforce morals clause language used in teacher contracts at archdiocese-recognized schools, was required to discontinue its employment of any teacher in a public, same-sex marriage, and could forfeit being formally recognized as a Catholic school in the archdiocese by failing to comply with the directive; and (4) the school subsequently terminated the plaintiff’s employment.

On May 7, 2021, the trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s lawsuit on the ground that the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom deprived it of jurisdiction to adjudicate his claims.

The plaintiff promptly appealed, claiming that the trial court erred in dismissing his case because “[his] claims do not implicate internal church governance, require the courts to resolve an ecclesiastical controversy, or otherwise excessively entangle the courts with religion.” The archdiocese countered that, in issuing the directive to the school, it “act[ed] in accordance with ecclesiastical directive[,]” deriving from canon law, which courts cannot review or question.

The appeals court began its opinion by noting:

[T]he First Amendment to the United States Constitution . . . requires civil courts to refrain from interfering in matters of church discipline, faith, practice, and religious law. Thus, civil courts are precluded from resolving disputes involving churches if “resolution of the disputes cannot be made without extensive inquiry . . . into religious law and polity. . . .” Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976). The basic law in Indiana is that courts will not interfere with the internal affairs of a private organization unless a personal liberty or property right is jeopardized. “Thus, the articles of incorporation and by-laws of a not-for-profit corporation are generally considered to be a contract between the corporation and its members and among the members themselves.”

We have held that “personnel decisions are protected from civil court interference where review by the civil courts would require the courts to interpret and apply religious doctrine or ecclesiastical law. Ecclesiastical matters include “a matter which concerns theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of the church to the standard of morals required of them.”

But the court noted that the First Amendment does not prohibit courts from opening their doors to religious organizations. Instead, “a court can apply neutral principles of law to churches without violating the First Amendment. The First Amendment only prohibits the court from determining underlying questions of religious doctrine and practice.”

The court concluded that the trial court erred in dismissing the plaintiff’s claim. It noted that under the “church autonomy doctrine” churches have a First Amendment right to autonomy “in making decisions regarding their own internal affairs including matters of faith, doctrine, and internal governance.” But the First Amendment “does not immunize every legal claim against a religious institution and its members. The analysis in each case is fact-sensitive and claim specific, requiring an assessment of every issue raised in terms of doctrinal and administrative intrusion and entanglement.”

The court concluded that in this case the parties had yet to undertake the requisite “fact-sensitive and claim specific” analysis that must precede analysis of whether the First Amendment bars the plaintiff’s claims against the archdiocese.

What this means for churches

The court concluded that while it was barred by the “church autonomy doctrine” from adjudicating matters pertaining to a church’s internal affairs including matters of faith, doctrine, and internal governance, such a result was not proper without a “fact-sensitive and claim specific analysis requiring an assessment of every issue raised in terms of doctrinal and administrative intrusion and entanglement.”

Since the trial court had neglected to perform such an analysis, its dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims had to be reversed. Note that the court’s decision was based on a technicality, and not the merits of the archdiocese’s legal defenses. The case was remanded back to the trial court for a “fact-sensitive and claim specific analysis requiring an assessment of every issue raised in terms of doctrinal and administrative intrusion and entanglement.” The results of such an analysis may well result in a dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims.

There is one additional aspect of this case that deserves consideration. The plaintiff brought the following two claims against the archdiocese:

  • intentional interference with a contract, and
  • intentional interference with an employment relationship

These bases of church liability were addressed in a 2021 case in Pennsylvania that was discussed in the Legal Development on Tracy v. O’Bell, 268 A.3d 405 (Pa. App. 2021).

Payne-Elliott v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese, 180 N.E.3d 311 (Ind. App. 2021)

Court Concluded Employer Discriminated Against Discharged Employee on the Basis of His Religious Beliefs

Can an employee be terminated for his refusal (based on religious beliefs) to work on

Can an employee be terminated for his refusal (based on religious beliefs) to work on Sundays? That was the difficult question before a federal appeals court.

When hired, the employee (who was a member of the Church of God) explained to his employer that he could not work on Sundays because it would violate his religious beliefs. He was advised working on Sundays was purely voluntary. However, a few years later, the employer experienced a substantial increase in business, and it was forced to operate on some Sundays.

The employee was ordered to work on a number of Sundays, and on each occasion he refused. He eventually was terminated, and later sued the employer for its alleged violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibits most employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of religion unless they can demonstrate that they are "unable to reasonably accommodate" an employee's religious beliefs "without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer's business."

The court concluded that the employer had in fact violated Title VII, since it had discriminated against the discharged employee on the basis of his religious beliefs, but had failed to make any attempt to "reasonably accommodate" those beliefs. In particular, the court observed that several other employees testified that they would have been willing to work on Sundays in place of the discharged employee if they had been asked.

The court rejected the employer's claim that it had no duty to accommodate the religious beliefs of an employee who absolutely refused to work on Sundays, since the employer's position "turns the statute on its head. It improperly places the burden on the employee to be reasonable rather than on the employer to attempt accommodation." Even an absolute refusal to work on Sundays "requires some offer of accommodation by employers," concluded the court.

E.E.O.C. v. Ithaca Industries, Inc., 849 F.2d 116 (4th Cir. 1988)

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