6th Circuit: Rehabilitation Act non-discrimination provisions apply to religious organizations delivering social services

Howard Friedman, Religion Clause

The federal Rehabilitation Act, Sec. 504 (29 USC 794(a)), prohibits any program receiving federal financial assistance from discriminating on the basis of disability. As defined in Sec. 794(b)(3), the ban covers an entire organization, even if the part of the organization that discriminated does not receive federal funds, where the organization “is principally engaged in the business of providing education, health care, housing, social services, or parks and recreation.” Otherwise the ban applies only to the part of the organization that receives funding.  In Doe v. Salvation Army in the United States, (6th Cir., July 11, 2012), the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to defendant finding that questions of fact remain as to whether the Salvation Army principally engages in the business of providing social services. The court said:

nothing in the statute distinguishes between social services done for worship or spiritual reasons and social services done for secular reasons. If the statute had expressly excluded “religious organizations” or entities engaging in “religious services,” we would be faced with the difficult task of deciding whether § 504 applies to a religious organization that defined its religious service as the practice of social service. Under the current language of the statute, however, the Salvation Army is no different from any other church or religious organization that chooses to engage in one of the statutorily designated activities.

The court also rejected the Salvation Army’s broader claim that religious organizations are totally exempt from Sec. 504.  The Salvation Army relied primarily on language in a 1987 Senate Report on amendments to the law.  The court however emphasized that Congress did not include any express exemption from Sec. 504 for religious organizations.  This stands in contrast to various religious exemptions that are included in other federal non-discrimination laws. [Thanks to Steven H. Sholk for the lead.]