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Religious Organizations Providing Social Services Subject to Rehabilitation Act Provisions

    Client Alerts
  • July 27, 2012

In its just completed term, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that employees of religious organizations that perform ministerial functions are exempt from coverage under federal civil rights law. While declining to specifically define ministerial activities, the Court applied the exemption to a teacher at a parochial school. Earlier this month, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals made clear that this reasoning does not apply to employees of religious organizations who provide social services if the organization receives federal funding.

In Doe v. Salvation Army, the plaintiff applied for a driving position and alleged that he was rejected due to use of prescription medicine. He sued under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits discrimination against disabled persons by recipients of federal funding. The Salvation Army contended that as a religious organization, it is exempt from coverage under Section 504.

The Sixth Circuit rejected this argument, concluding that the statutory language makes clear that religious organizations principally engaged in providing social services are not exempt from disability discrimination prohibitions. The Court rejected the Salvation Army's position that such services were part of its religious mission, and were subordinate to its main function of spreading the Gospel. The Sixth Circuit said that the organization's activities determined coverage, not its motive behind such activities.

When a religious organization accepts federal funding, it may subject itself to coverage under federal laws that otherwise would not apply to its management of employees and applicants. Despite the Supreme Court's recognition of the ministerial exemption, not all religious organizations, and not all of their employees will be outside the scope of federal anti-discrimination laws.