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6th Circuit: Religious organization can be sued under Rehab Act

The Salvation Army could be sued for disability discrimination under the federal Rehabilitation Act, despite its status as a religion-based organization, the 6th Circuit has ruled in reversing a summary judgment.

The plaintiff sued the Salvation Army for disability discrimination under the Act, alleging that he was denied a position as a truck driver after a supervisor inappropriately inquired during a job interview about his use of medications to treat psychiatric conditions.

Section 504 of the Act requires a plaintiff to establish that the program or activity accused of discrimination is receiving federal financial assistance. The statutory definition of “program or activity” permits consideration of the whole organization if the organization is principally engaged in the business of providing social services.

The Salvation Army, which receives some federal funding, argued that it was a religious organization and, therefore, could not be deemed to be principally engaged in the business of providing social services within the meaning of §504.

But the 6th Circuit held that there is no per se exception for religious organizations in the statute. Moreover, the court concluded that a trier of fact could conclude that the Salvation Army was principally engaged in social services for purposes of §504.

“[T]he fact that the Salvation Army views its social service as a way of spreading its spiritual teachings is not dispositive – an activity can be both. The issue in this case is not whether the Salvation Army is religious or views these services as worship – we do not doubt that it does. The sole issue is whether these activities could be considered ‘social services,’ and whether the Salvation Army’s primary business is to engage in social services,” the court said.

U.S. Court of Appeals, 6th Circuit. Doe v. Salvation Army, No. 11-3019. July 11,  2012.


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