Employment Practices – Part 2

A federal court dismissed a lawsuit brought by a former seminary student against a seminary alleging that the seminary violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Church Law and Tax2002-09-01

Employment Practices

Key point 8-10. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits employers with at least 15 employees, and that are engaged in interstate commerce, from discriminating in any employment decision against a qualified individual with a disability who is able, with or without reasonable accommodation from the employer, to perform the essential functions of the job. Accommodations that impose an undue hardship upon an employer are not required. Religious organizations may give preference to nondisabled members of their faith over disabled persons who are members of a different faith.Americans with Disabilities Act

* A federal court dismissed a lawsuit brought by a former seminary student against a seminary alleging that the seminary violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to accommodate his various disabilities. In 1996 a student ("Larry") was admitted as a graduate student by a seminary. Larry suffered from Tourette’s Syndrome, Attention Deficient Hyperactivity Disorder, and Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder. He alleges that the seminary discriminated against him in a variety of ways, including preventing him from applying for senior status, requiring that he take time off for counseling and medications as a condition of continuing his studies, requiring him to take the MMPI test twice, refusing to provide faculty endorsement for senior status, requiring him to enter into a learning contract, and requiring him to complete a training and mentoring program. The seminary did not require these things of non-disabled students. The seminary ultimately dismissed Larry, informing him that the reasons for the dismissal were his failure to apply for senior status, as well as his poor relationships. Larry claimed that these reasons were pretextual, and that the seminary discriminated against him because of his disabilities in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

The court dismissed the ADA claim on the ground that the seminary, as a religious institution, was exempt. The court noted that Larry’s claim was based on Title III of the ADA, which prohibits discrimination in "public accommodations" and services operated by private entities. Title III specifies 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." The phrase "public accommodation" is defined in terms of 12 categories, including private elementary, secondary, undergraduate, or postgraduate schools, or other places of education. However, Title III does not apply to "religious organizations or entities controlled by religious organizations, including places of worship." Although no court has addressed the scope of this exemption, the regulations drafted by the federal government contain the following clarification:

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 or this part. 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 services. 28 C.F.R. Pt. 36, App. B.

The regulations also address the situation in which a pervasively religious organization includes secular boards or other departments.

Religious entities that are controlled by religious organizations are also exempt from the ADA’s requirements. Many religious organizations in the United States use lay boards and other secular or corporate mechanisms to operate schools and an array of social services. The use of a lay board or other mechanism does not itself remove the ADA’s religious exemption. Thus, a parochial school, having religious doctrine in its curriculum and sponsored by a religious order, could be exempt either as a religious organization or as an entity controlled by a religious organization, even if it has a lay board. The test remains a factual one—whether the church or other religious organization controls the operations of the school or of the service or whether the school or service is itself a religious organization.

The court concluded that the seminary was "a pervasively religious organization." It observed,

The seminary provides a graduate education founded on and steeped in Biblical teachings. Its sole mission is to train students for Christian ministry. In the process it teaches "historic, evangelical faith." It was founded by the Conservative Baptist Association of Colorado, and a majority of its Board of Trustees must be members of the Conservative Baptist Association. The seminary employs only individuals who "(a) profess a personal belief in Jesus Christ as a personal Savior; (b) subscribe to a statement of faith … and (c) are active members of a local Christian Church." Faculty and other employees must sign a statement of religious beliefs in order to remain at the seminary. Students are required to participate in a religious curriculum and attend weekly chapel. This evidence is not genuinely disputed. I therefore conclude that the seminary is a religious organization.

Application. The court correctly concluded that the ADA’s "public accommodation" provisions do not apply to seminaries and other religious institutions. However, note that the court did not address Larry’s claim that the seminary violated the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This Act specifies that "no otherwise qualified individual with a disability … shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance." Did the seminary receive federal financial assistance? Federal regulations define this term to include "any grant, loan, contract … or any other arrangement by which the [federal government] provides or otherwise makes available assistance in the form of (1) funds; (2) services of federal personnel; or (3) real or personal property or any interest in or use of such property, including transfers or leases of such property for less than fair market value or for reduced consideration." Colleges and other post-secondary institutions which receive any form of financial assistance or loans, for the institution or for students attending the institution, are deemed to be federal financial recipients subject to the Rehabilitation Act. White v. Denver Seminary, 157 F.Supp.2d 1171 (D. Colo. 2001).

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