Resisting the ADA: The Shocking Duplicity of White Evangelicals’ Pro-life Position
Earlier this year we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act along with the ground breaking opportunities and access it provided to a community long denied its due. While I’ve read a lot of great journalism covering the significance of this event, few mentioned the active engagement of the Evangelical church to exempt itself from the ADA’s provisions.
In this particular time, when white Evangelicals claim to be the exclusive vanguards of “life,” this duplicity deserves more than a little oxygen.
Disabled activist Shannon Dingle wrote an excellent article for Sojourners in 2018 exposing the strategic machinations of a church who used its legal prowess to dodge rather than support the mandates of the ADA. I borrow from her heavily here. Dingle’s article is well sourced even providing the archival documents signed by William Bentley Ball, legal counsel for the Association for Christian Schools International as well as Robert Dugan, the public relations officer for the National Association of Evangelicals.
The documents could not be more vivid in their lack of concern for “life.”
As Dingle points out, the heart of the objections to the ADA for both Ball and Dugan appear to be largely based on the excessive financial costs of implementation and the fear of government entanglement. They preface their arguments with the claim that Christian organizations ought not be considered places of “public accommodation.”
While Ball is arguing this on behalf of Christian schools, Dugan is doing so on behalf of churches. He maintains that churches ought not be compelled to provide wheelchair ramps and accessible bathrooms. Instead, he reasons churches ought be afforded the same exemptions as enjoyed by private clubs. His language on this point is especially self-righteous…
“A particular odious affront to persons both serving and giving sacrificially is the artificial classification of their private religious endeavor as a place of ‘public accommodation,’ in defiance of past legal concepts of public accommodation as well as religious liberty rights.”
As for governmental intrusion, both Ball and Dugan believed the definition of “disabled” in the original bill was too broad obligating religious institutions to embrace “the conditions of AIDS, of being alcoholic (or intoxicated) and of being under the influence of drugs.” While Ball worried about the implications for the hired personnel of Christian schools, Dugan worried about the worthiness of church volunteers. He wrote…
“The failure of voluntary community members, who are often the recipients of private charity, to obey religious standards, cannot be treated as a license for favored treatment as a protected class, or as a shield from disciplines which apply to other voluntary and employed participants. This would violate our faith commitments.”
Concerning the excessive financial costs engendered by complying with the ADA, in her Sojourner’s article Dingle graciously acknowledges that these costs are indeed substantial. However, she rightly points out that Dugan and Ball could have lobbied for extensions to compliance allowing for gradual accommodation in order to mitigate the impact. However, they didn’t. And in fact, Dugan claims reverse discrimination imposing an undue burden on the majority who have no need of such accommodations.
“Still another serious problem, pertinent to most charitable endeavors (particularly small ones), is the prospect of radical expansion of costs very often not warranted by the particular needs of anyone actually on the premises. In the case of voluntary religious activity, in which the participants have a constitutional right to engage, free of burdens (if such are not called for by health or safety considerations), the burdens are impermissible.”
So, to recap, churches should not be expected to provide handicap parking spaces because…
· churches have more in common with private clubs than public accommodations
· some of the people who park in those handicap spaces may abuse alcohol, drugs, or have AIDS
· it’s too much to ask people who don’t need the handicap spaces to pay for those who do
Forgive the sarcasm and the glibness, but in what universe is this consistent with any notion of advocating for “life,” be it political or theological?
It’s tragic that in the struggle for marginalized voices to be heard, the only voices white Evangelicals seem willing to champion with their considerable legal power are those of the unborn. All the more puzzling because abortion has not always played such a pivotal role in conservative Christian politics. While Roe v. Wade passed into law in 1973, white Evangelicals remained rather ambivalent until 1979.
It’s too bad really. Because the voices of disabled activists could have really used the support of conservative Christians when in March of 1973 law-and-order President Richard Nixon vetoed for the second time the Rehabilitation Act — the first legislation to address removing transportation, employment, and architectural barriers for disabled Americans. After 6 more months of protests from activists, Nixon finally signed.
Then again in 1977, the voices of disabled activists could have really used the support of conservative Christians during the 504 Sit-in in San Francisco. Almost 150 disabled individuals held out for a month under grueling conditions, insisting on the enforcement of ignored provisions in the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. They could have used food, medical supplies, moral support — which they did receive — but not from white Evangelicals. Rather, it was the hospitality of black Methodists at Glide Memorial, the Black Panthers, and the Gay Man’s Butterfly Brigade that fortified them.
Then again, the voices of disabled activists could have used the support of conservative Christians when the ADA stalled out in the House despite having passed the Senate. In March of 1990 while the bill languished, activists marched, wheeled, hobbled, and crawled from the White House, then up the Capitol steps in an astonishing act of defiance to Washington’s lethargy. But remarkably, rather than using their fiduciary efforts to assist those marginalized voices, white Evangelicals had already used up their legal capital in exempting themselves from the bill’s provisions.
So I ask again — no sarcasm or glibness needed — in what universe is this consistent with any notion of advocating for “life,” be it political or theological? The duplicity exposed by this utter disregard for humanity ought give one pause in blithely accepting the biblical foundation claimed by white Evangelicals currently jockeying for political power. There may be many reasons for their zealotry, but I question how much it has to do with special regard for “life.”