The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is a federal law that prohibits commercial facilities, public accommodations, transportation services and employers from discriminating against individuals on the basis of physical or mental disabilities. Religious entities such as churches, however, are expressly exempted from compliance with the provisions of the ADA that apply to private employers and public accommodations.
Church Hiring Preferences
Title I of the ADA prohibits disability discrimination by employers. The general rule is that no covered employer can discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability in regard to job application procedures, hiring, advancement or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training or other terms, conditions and privileges of employment.
Title I, however, contains a specific provision allowing religious institutions to give hiring preference to individuals of a particular religion. In this regard, a disabled person may be legally discriminated against by the church in favor of an applicant who holds particular religious beliefs. If the church does hire a disabled person, it may need to make building or workspace modifications to accommodate that employee.
Equal Access Exemption for Churches
Title III of the ADA mandates that no individuals shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in their enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages or accommodations of any place of public accommodation. To comply with this provision, a public accommodation must remove barriers to full access of its facilities.
The equal access provisions of ADA, however, do not apply to religious organizations or places of worship operated by religious organizations. Churches are exempt from ADA coverage and do not have to remove barriers to accommodations including in auditoriums, nursery schools and daycare centers. The exemption applies whether the church activities are religious or secular.
Rationale for the Church Exemption
The equal access exemption for religious institutions has been upheld by courts on the basis that requiring religious entities to comply with the ADA and allowing the government to initiate enforcement proceedings against religious entities would amount to an impermissible government interference with religion. As explained by the federal court in the case of Chipkevich v. University of Scranton, exempting religious entities from the ADA’s equal access provisions allows them to design their facilities and perform their services in accordance with their religious tenets.
Church Facilities Operated by Nonreligious Entities
The equal access exemption for churches does not extend to nonreligious entities that rent facilities owned by or located within the church. Nonreligious entities must comply with the hiring and equal access provisions of the ADA if they operate public accommodations in inaccessible facilities rented or leased from a church. If the nonreligious entity is operating in a space donated by the church, however, it is exempt from the ADA’s requirements.
Alternative Equal Access Laws
Despite being exempted from full compliance with the ADA, churches may still have to provide equal access to disabled persons pursuant to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Under the Rehabilitation Act, any facility that receives federal funding is prohibited from discriminating on the basis of disability. There is no exemption for religious entities. If a church receives federal funding for a program or activity, that program or activity must be physically accessible to people with disabilities.