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Doe v. The Salvation Army, No. 11-3019 (6th Cir. July 11, 2012)

The saga of the Doe case continues, with its second trip to the Sixth Circuit since it was first filed in 2005. Once again, the plaintiff wins a reversal of summary judgment, with the Sixth Circuit holding that there is no "religious organization" exception to coverage under § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

In its last trip to the Sixth Circuit, the court reversed summary judgment on liability, holding that there was a genuine issue of material fact about whether the employer failed to hire the employee as a driver because of a "record of" paranoid schizophrenia disorder, 531 F.3d 355, 20 A.D. Cases 1288 (6th Cir. 2008). (See the June 30, 2008 blog entry on this case.)

According to the summary judgment record, the interview went rather poorly:

"Snider [supervisor of the Salvation Army's Adult Rehabilitation Center] instructed Doe to fill out an application and explained that the part-time job that was available required three eight-hour days per week and paid $7.00 per hour. Doe responded that he could not work on Fridays because, '[he] had to see [his] doctor, and . . . pick up [his] medicine.' Snider asked Doe 'what kind of medication' he took, and Doe responded, 'psychotropic medicine.' According to Doe, at that point, Snider 'stopped the interview and said that his insurance would not cover me.' Doe offered to obtain a letter from his doctor, but Snider refused to reconsider."

On remand, the district court again granted summary judgment, this time finding that because the defendant is a religious organization, it is not - as a matter of law - a corporation that is "principally engaged in the business of providing . . . social services," such as would qualify it for coverage under the act (because at least part of The Salvation Army's support comes from federal grants).

The Sixth Circuit again reverses. It begins with the text of the act:

"A natural reading of the statute does not explicitly exclude or include religious organizations. Although the lack of an explicit exception is not dispositive, the plain meaning of the relevant terms does not weigh in favor of creating an implicit exception for religious organizations. The words 'program or activity' are expressly defined, and the delineated list includes entities that easily could be religious organizations, i.e., 'an entire corporation, partnership, or other private organization.' 29 U.S.C. § 794(b)(3)(A). Many religious groups choose to incorporate under state law, . . . and the inclusion of the phrase 'or other private organization' at the end of the series implies a broad, rather than narrow, initial class of covered entities."

The panel also holds that "social service" includes any activities "designed to promote social well-being," regardless of the presence or absence of a religious motivation:

"The question before us, however, is not the definition of religious worship. What we must decide is whether these activities are 'social services,' and an organization's motivation for engaging in social services, be it spiritual or altruistic, does not appear to be part of that calculus from the plain meaning of the statutory words. Put simply, the provision of social services may be a form of religious worship, but that makes it no less the provision of social services."

Thus the panel holds that even a spiritually-motivated mission can fit within the ambit of the act:

"Putting the plain meaning of the full statutory provision all together, a corporation of any kind, religious or otherwise, can be principally engaged in the business of providing social services if the organization primarily takes part in matters that promote social well-being. We see nothing in the statute's plain text that suggests that an organization's religious status or motivation has any bearing on this inquiry."

In a thorough review of the legislative history, the panel finds that aside from a single sentence in a Senate panel report, there was no sign that the rehabilitation Act was meant to exempt religious organizations. That sentence, unsupported by any textual reference in the act itself, is insufficient to countermand the plain language of the statute. And "[i]n the very same Senate Committee Report, we learn that the committee 'defeated an amendment . . . that would limit coverage of programs or activities operated by religious organizations to the particular subunit of the organization which receives the federal funds,' because except for the religious-tenet exemption, see infra, which is not at issue here, 'religious recipients of federal financial assistance have been and are subject to the prohibitions on discrimination of the four civil rights laws in the same manner as non-religious recipients of federal aid.' S. REP. NO. 100-64, at 27."

Finally, the panel holds that the record presents a genuine issue of fact about whether the defendant is "principally engaged" in providing social services:

"The Salvation Army runs day cares, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, and homeless shelters that offer numerous services to the public. This list is consistent with establishments that would be treated as 'social service center[s]' under the Americans with Disabilities Act . . . .  the 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."

And so the case returns to the district court once again. Congrats to Doe and the the Ohio Legal Rights Service (and is it too rude to wonder why such a relatively modest case has continued seven years, with no end in sight?)

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