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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