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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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