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Monday, April 2, 2007

Uncommon Appeals Court Case on the ADA’s Religious Exemption

In an Americans with Disabilies Act (ADA) suit against a private Quaker school and three of its employees, parents of a student claimed that the school created a discriminatory environment complete with public humiliation, improper physical discipline, and an orchestrated campaign to force his withdrawal from the school. The school also allegedly failed to adequately accommodate the boy's Attention Deficit Disorder and related learning disabilities.

The lower court had granted judgment to the school on account of the ADA's exemption for religious organizations. The basis of that decision was a single affidavit by the Head of School describing the intimate connections between the local Quaker Meeting and the school; the family filing suit had not had an opportunity for pre-trial discovery into the factual basis for any religious exemption.

The crucial issue in this case for the court is whether the school is "controlled" by the Quaker religious organization. The ADA provides that its provisions “shall not apply ... to religious organizations or entities controlled by religious organizations, including places of worship.” 42 U.S.C. § 12187. If Abington is a religious organization (or controlled by one), then the case must be dismissed.

Abington Friends School was established in 1697, and is the oldest primary and secondary educational institution in the country that has operated continuously at the same location. It is affiliated with the Abington Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). The family filing suit claimed that, although the school is a "Quaker" school, it "does not conduct itself or hold itself out as a religious organization or an entity controlled by a religious organization."

The family requested pre-trial discovery of facts related to the ownership and operation of the school, its curriculum, the religious affiliation of staff, teachers and students, and the Quaker Meeting's control over the school. The lower court denied the discovery and granted summary judgment to the school, concluding that the "religious organization" test is not a factual test, but rather one to be decided on the law, as informed by the Head of School's affidavit.

In this decision by the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals, the court noted the paucity of caselaw on the religious exemption. "No court of appeals has yet fully examined the ADA's religious exemption, and the undeveloped state of this record makes us reticent to do so now." Whether Abington qualifies is a "mixed question of law and fact," and the family is entitled, the court held, to discovery on the school's nature, religious or otherwise. The court concluded:

"One of the oldest primary and secondary schools in the country, long known for its Quaker heritage, superficially seems to be a strong candidate. But discovery digs subsurface and may unearth facts that tend to support the contrary conclusion. Because the Does were not given an opportunity to marshal facts in aid of their argument, we vacate the District Court's grant of summary judgment and remand this case for further proceedings.”

Doe v. Abington Friends School, --- F.3d ----, 2007 WL 777561 (3d Cir., Mar. 15, 2007).

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