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COA addresses first impression issue regarding education under civil rights law

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The Indiana Court of Appeals – with one judge reluctantly doing so – affirmed a decision by an administrative law judge that found a religious organization unlawfully retaliated against a family by expelling them from the homeschooling group. The expulsion occurred after the family sought a dietary accommodation for their teenage daughter at a social event and later filed a complaint with the Indiana Civil Rights Commission.

Fishers Adolescent Catholic Enrichment Society Inc. is a private, nonprofit religious organization founded by Catholic parents to provide religious, educational and social enrichment opportunities for their homeschooled children. Elizabeth Bridgewater and her daughter Alyssa belonged to the organization where Alyssa took several educational courses that did not relate to religion.

Alyssa requires dietary accommodations because of a life-threatening allergic reaction to certain foods. Her mother, who was planning a masquerade ball in 2008 for the teenage members of the group, sought a special meal for Alyssa. FACES co-founder Vanessa Alexander denied the request and said Alyssa could bring in a meal. Her ticket would not be discounted, and Bridgewater was later removed from planning duties by Alexander.

The Bridgewaters filed a complaint with the Indiana Civil Rights Commission alleging discrimination. FACES then expelled the family citing four reasons, including that Bridgewater contacted the event venue after she was told not to. The family then alleged that FACES unlawfully retaliated against them because they filed the accommodation complaint.

An administrative law judge found it could rule on the matter despite the group’s religious affiliation because it was “related to education” under I.C. 22-9-1-3(1). The ALJ also held FACES didn’t commit an unlawful discriminatory practice, but did unlawfully retaliate against the family. The ALJ ordered $2,500 in damages to Alyssa, that FACES re-admit the family, and that it post this decision on all websites on which FACES communicated information about the case.

“What ‘relates to’ education under Indiana’s civil rights law is the threshold, first-impression issue disputed by the parties, and the first question facing this Court,” Judge Nancy Vaidik wrote in the majority opinion in Fishers Adolescent Catholic Enrichment Society, Inc. v. Elizabeth Bridgewater o/b/o Alyssa Bridgewater, 93A02-1202-EX-145.  "… [W]e believe that a group – even a religious one – may take certain steps to place itself within the purview of the ICRC in this state. In determining whether this has occurred, we believe it is necessary to consider the group’s nature and educational features; particularly the level of the group’s formality and the delivery and substance of the education it provides.”

Vaidik pointed to FACES steps to formalize itself – it has a board of directors, offers non-religious courses, and the structure of the classes.

“The ICRC inquired into FACES’ accommodation of Alyssa’s dietary needs and retaliatory expulsion of the Bridgewater family. There is simply no religious entanglement issue here – there is no evidence that either of these inquiries resulted in governmental interference with the tenets of the Catholic faith.”

The COA affirmed the damages award to Alyssa but reversed the order that FACES must post the ALJ’s decision on all websites where it discusses the case.

Judge L. Mark Bailey concurred in result reluctantly, he wrote, because he doesn’t think matters “relating to …education” as provided by the Indiana Civil Rights Law should encompass a social function like the ball.

“I do not think, based upon the language of the ICRL, that the ICRC would have properly had subject matter jurisdiction over the Bridgewaters’ complaint were it not for FACES’s retaliatory conduct,” he wrote.

Bailey would hold that the order that Alyssa be readmitted only extends to those activities of FACES that are specifically educational rather than social.

“I do not think that the legislature’s broad intent when it enacted our civil rights statutes involved making the ICRC and our courts arbiters of such private disputes as have arisen between FACES and the Bridgewaters,” he added.

 

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