Pastor, Church & Law

Discrimination in Public Accommodations

§ 08.14.02

Key Point 8-14.02. 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.

Another major provision (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 the following:

  • Denying an individual (or class of individuals) the opportunity to use the accommodations on the basis of a disability.
  • Providing disabled individuals with use or enjoyment of the accommodations that is not equal to that afforded nondisabled persons.
  • Providing disabled individuals with use or enjoyment of the accommodations separate from those afforded nondisabled persons.
  • Establishing eligibility criteria that screen out disabled individuals.
  • Failure to make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures, if necessary to make the accommodations available to disabled individuals.
  • Failure to take steps to ensure that disabled persons are not denied use of the accommodations because of the absence of “auxiliary aids and services.”
  • Failure to remove architectural barriers in existing facilities if such removal is “readily achievable.” The term readily achievable is defined by the ADA to mean “easily accomplishable and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense.” Factors to be considered in making this determination include (1) the nature and cost of the action needed, and (2) the overall financial resources of the facility, the number of employees, and the impact of the removal on the operation of the facility.
  • Failure to employ readily achievable alternatives if the removal of architectural barriers is not readily achievable.

Disabled persons are permitted to sue an organization that owns or operates a place of public accommodation that engages in one or more of these discriminatory practices. They can either obtain a court injunction ordering the place of public accommodation to comply with the law, or they can obtain monetary damages (up to $50,000 for a first violation, and up to $100,000 for subsequent violations).

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 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.”

It is important to note that while religious organizations are not subject to the ADA’s public accommodation provisions, they may be subject to similar provisions under state or local law.

Case study. Local churches, denominational agencies, and church-controlled schools do not have to comply with the public accommodation provisions of the ADA. For example, they would not need to remove architectural barriers to make their facilities more accessible to disabled persons. This exemption applies both to existing and future construction. But be sure to check state and local laws for possible application.

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