DETROIT — Can Michigan courts intervene in some decisions at religious schools?
The state Supreme Court is hearing arguments Thursday in a case that looks at the broad shield given to churches and faith-based schools under the First Amendment. The case raises questions about whether a dyslexic student claiming discrimination can overcome that legal threshold.
“It’s very significant, particularly for persons with disabilities,” said Chris Davis, a lawyer with Michigan Protection & Advocacy Service, part of a national network of disability-rights agencies.
The parents of a girl who was rejected by Notre Dame Preparatory School in Pontiac allege she was illegally turned down in 2014 because of a learning disability.
The Roman Catholic school denies any discrimination and insists the girl was rejected for 9th grade because of low grades at Notre Dame’s Marist Academy. The school said the decision was made long before she was diagnosed with dyslexia and attention-deficit disorder.
Lawyers for the school and its sponsor, the Marist Fathers of Detroit, said details of the admissions process really aren’t crucial in this case because state and federal courts already have carved out protections for their decisions.
Notre Dame Preparatory “has exercised its First Amendment right to decide whom it will admit to receive its religious training and indoctrination. … A court has no power to determine who will be admitted into a religious school — a power that would be tantamount to establishing a religion,” attorney Thomas Rheaume Jr. said in a filing at the Supreme Court.
But the girl’s parents believe there’s an important distinction. They said courts must be allowed to explore whether decisions are actually rooted in religion before cloaking the school with First Amendment protections.
“There is nothing in the pleadings that would indicate a decision entangled in religious doctrine,” the girl’s attorney, Nicholas Roumel, said.
The teenager, he said, simply alleges she was denied admission because the school “did not want to deal with her learning disability.”
The Supreme Court will hear arguments, but there’s no guarantee that it will take any action. Justices could drop the case and let a 2015 appeals court decision stand.
Notre Dame Preparatory won that round when the appeals court said it would follow a precedent set in 1994 in a lawsuit at another Catholic school. Three families sued when their children were barred from returning to St. Pius X School in Southgate. The appeals court at that time said the dispute was “outside the purview of civil law.”
Cliff Taylor, a conservative who would later become Supreme Court chief justice, dissented in the 2-1 decision, saying it “mistakenly creates an irrebuttable presumption in favor of religious institutions.” He said the feud at St. Pius X involved a contract claim — not religion.
Davis said Michigan’s anti-discrimination law based on disabilities covers all schools, public or private.
“What religious principle is being trampled on by applying a civil rights statute?” he said.
Timothy Denney, a Lapeer-based attorney who specializes in religious freedom law, said a loss for the school could have wide consequences.
“If they open the door to any second-guessing of admission decisions,” he said of the Supreme Court, “the list of potential discrimination claims will be as long as your arm.”