Disability, religious-freedom claims clash at Indiana Supreme Court

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An argument over dinner has taken on First Amendment religious-freedom and disability-protection dimensions before the Indiana Supreme Court.

Justices Monday heard arguments in Fishers Adolescent Catholic Enrichment Society v. Bridgewater, 990 N.E.2d 29 (Ind. Ct. App. 2013), vacated. Fishers Adolescent Catholic Enrichment Society, an organization of parents who home school, sponsored a dinner-dance for students at which the Bridgewater family requested a steak dinner be served to their daughter. Because of food allergies, she couldn’t consume the chicken dinner that had been arranged, and FACES leaders requested the Bridgewaters bring their daughter’s meal.

After FACES failed to accommodate the request, the Bridgewaters filed a discrimination claim with the Indiana Civil Rights Commission. A few days, later the Bridgewaters were excluded from the group. The ICRC ruled FACES unlawfully discriminated by expelling the family in retaliation for a disability claim. The Court of Appeals affirmed a $2,500 fine, but struck an ICRC order that FACES post the decision on its website and elsewhere.

Arguing for FACES, Patrick T. Gillen said the agency lacked jurisdiction and erred because the group’s mission wasn’t “related to education” as the statute requires.

“We believe the civil rights law has been applied in a way that’s inconsistent with the First Amendment,” Gillen said. The ICRC, he said, had engaged in “second-guessing membership decisions” of a private religious group that has a right to self-determination as it relates to membership, and that the ICRC made “an unprecedented intrusion” into private decision-making.

The Bridgewaters’ attorney, Nelson Nettles, said the case has little to do with religion.

“They like to keep shifting the focus to religious matters,” he said. “We’re talking about discrimination against people with disabilities. … It was because of the disability complaint that they kicked (the Bridgewaters) out.”

Nettles said the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled repeatedly that “discrimination against people with disabilities has a heavier weight in these kinds of cases.” He cited the SCOTUS case of professional golfer Casey Martin, in which justices ruled the Professional Golf Association could not enforce a rule forbidding the use of golf carts to bar Martin from the tour. Martin claimed a disability requiring the use of a cart.

Justice Robert Rucker asked Gillen if he could think of a case in which the ICRC would have jurisdiction over FACES. He said he couldn’t, but there might be.

Justice Mark Massa pressed Nettles on whether he would concede that the Court of Appeals was correct in rejecting what Massa called “the public shaming” the ICRC ordered – that FACES post its decision. But Nettles said statute allowed ICRC to make such an order. “It’s one of the few remedies that actually benefits my client,” he said.

During rebuttal, Gillen attacked the assertion that FACES retaliated against the Bridgewaters, arguing that the ICRC’s administrative law judge found, for instance, that the family “did in fact meddle with arrangements” for the dinner-dance and were “undermining the group.”

But Rucker suggested to Gillen this was an invitation to reweigh the evidence.

Gillen said the decision to exclude the Bridgewaters wasn’t a case of discrimination or retaliation, but rather a matter of “home-schooling mothers who said, enough is enough.”

Justices raised several hypotheticals that threw both attorneys, including whether a private, evangelical Christian group could exclude members of other faiths, whether the level of a group’s organization or the type of someone’s disability would be factors in applying the civil rights statutes, and whether the ICRC could intervene if someone was denied admission to the group rather than being excluded later.    

Chief Justice Brent Dickson focused the final question for Gillen on the statutory language that subjected groups to ICRC jurisdiction if their mission is “related to” education. “That language chosen by the Legislature is awfully broad,” he said.


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  1. Especially I would like to see all the republican voting patriotic good ole boys to stop and understand that the wars they have been volunteering for all along (especially the past decade at least) have not been for God & Jesus etc no far from it unless you think George Washington's face on the US dollar is god (and we know many do). When I saw the movie about Chris Kyle, I thought wow how many Hoosiers are just like this guy, out there taking orders to do the nasty on the designated bad guys, sometimes bleeding and dying, sometimes just serving and coming home to defend a system that really just views them as reliable cannon fodder. Maybe if the Christians of the red states would stop volunteering for the imperial legions and begin collecting welfare instead of working their butts off, there would be a change in attitude from the haughty professorial overlords that tell us when democracy is allowed and when it isn't. To come home from guarding the borders of the sandbox just to hear if they want the government to protect this country's borders then they are racists and bigots. Well maybe the professorial overlords should gird their own loins for war and fight their own battles in the sandbox. We can see what kind of system this really is from lawsuits like this and we can understand who it really serves. NOT US.... I mean what are all you Hoosiers waving the flag for, the right of the president to start wars of aggression to benefit the Saudis, the right of gay marriage, the right for illegal immigrants to invade our country, and the right of the ACLU to sue over displays of Baby Jesus? The right of the 1 percenters to get richer, the right of zombie banks to use taxpayer money to stay out of bankruptcy? The right of Congress to start a pissing match that could end in WWIII in Ukraine? None of that crud benefits us. We should be like the Amish. You don't have to go far from this farcical lawsuit to find the wise ones, they're in the buggies in the streets not far away....

  2. Moreover, we all know that the well heeled ACLU has a litigation strategy of outspending their adversaries. And, with the help of the legal system well trained in secularism, on top of the genuinely and admittedly secular 1st amendment, they have the strategic high ground. Maybe Christians should begin like the Amish to withdraw their services from the state and the public and become themselves a "people who shall dwell alone" and foster their own kind and let the other individuals and money interests fight it out endlessly in court. I mean, if "the people" don't see how little the state serves their interests, putting Mammon first at nearly every turn, then maybe it is time they wake up and smell the coffee. Maybe all the displays of religiosity by American poohbahs on down the decades have been a mask of piety that concealed their own materialistic inclinations. I know a lot of patriotic Christians don't like that notion but I entertain it more and more all the time.

  3. If I were a judge (and I am not just a humble citizen) I would be inclined to make a finding that there was no real controversy and dismiss them. Do we allow a lawsuit every time someone's feelings are hurt now? It's preposterous. The 1st amendment has become a sword in the hands of those who actually want to suppress religious liberty according to their own backers' conception of how it will serve their own private interests. The state has a duty of impartiality to all citizens to spend its judicial resources wisely and flush these idiotic suits over Nativity Scenes down the toilet where they belong... however as Christians we should welcome them as they are the very sort of persecution that separates the sheep from the wolves.

  4. What about the single mothers trying to protect their children from mentally abusive grandparents who hide who they truly are behind mounds and years of medication and have mentally abused their own children to the point of one being in jail and the other was on drugs. What about trying to keep those children from being subjected to the same abuse they were as a child? I can understand in the instance about the parent losing their right and the grandparent having raised the child previously! But not all circumstances grant this being OKAY! some of us parents are trying to protect our children and yes it is our God given right to make those decisions for our children as adults!! This is not just black and white and I will fight every ounce of this to get denied

  5. Mr Smith the theory of Christian persecution in Indiana has been run by the Indiana Supreme Court and soundly rejected there is no such thing according to those who rule over us. it is a thought crime to think otherwise.