Religious institutions may always face complex questions as to whether, and which, legal exemptions apply to them in various situations. But a recent case in New Jersey federal court shines a narrow sliver of light onto this murky issue — at least in terms of discrimination and retaliation claims.
In Sky R. v. Haddonfield Friends School, Civil Action No. 14-5730 (D.N.J. Mar. 31, 2016), the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey recently held that the religious organization exemption contained in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) precluded a child and his mother from pursuing a disability discrimination claim against a religiously affiliated school.
Sky and his mother initiated a suit against Haddonfield Friends School (HFS), a private school affiliated with the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), after HFS expelled Sky. The allegations centered around claims of disability discrimination and retaliation under the ADA, NJLAD, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
The plaintiffs alleged that Sky suffered discrimination because HFS failed to accommodate his disabilities with appropriate, reasonable modifications and subjected him to public humiliation and shaming due to his disabilities. The retaliation claim was related to Sky’s expulsion, which was allegedly in retaliation for his mother’s advocacy.
HFS moved for partial summary judgment based on its exemption from the ADA and NJLAD as a religious organization. The ADA exempts “religious organizations or entities controlled by religious organizations.” 42 U.S.C. § 12187. The regulations further explain, “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.” 28 C.F.R. § Pt. 36, App. C. The NJLAD similarly exempts organizations that are operated or maintained by a bona fide religious or sectarian institution from its purview. N.J.S.A. § 10:5-5(l).
The plaintiffs argued that the school had strayed from its religious foundation, and, therefore, was not eligible for the exemption. The court found that HFS is controlled by a religious organization, that its bylaws cite to its religious underpinnings and implement a religious education curriculum, that its students engage in weekly worship, and that its new teachers who are not Quakers are required to participate in a two-day workshop about the faith. The court determined that HFS is excluded from the ADA and NJLAD.
The decision is important for religious institutions navigating anti-discrimination and other related laws where many times it is not completely clear what exemption, if any, may be available to religiously affiliated schools or institutions. Religious institutions should seek guidance from experienced legal counsel when facing claims of discrimination and retaliation to determine what defenses may be available.
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