Court Questions College’s First Amendment Claims

Questions of Catholic faith were pushed to the forefront Feb. 7 when Chestnut Hill College appeared in Commonwealth Court to appeal the Pennsylvania Human Relation Commission’s ruling against the school. The hearing may decide whether the state board has jurisdiction over the college’s disciplinary actions. A court decision is expected to take two to three months.

The college has claimed exemption from the PHRC’s jurisdiction after the commission found probable cause that the school discriminated against former student Allan Michael Meads and other black students on campus. The suit began after Meads was expelled in 2012, shortly before he was scheduled to graduate. The commission also found that black students were disproportionately disciplined compared to others.

The school appealed to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania on the basis that the disciplinary practices of a “distinctly private” and religious institution are constitutionally protected and therefore not under the jurisdiction of the PHRC. The school was granted the appeal in May 2016.

Danielle Banks, the school’s attorney, and Jelani Cooper, the PHRC’s assistant chief counsel, each presented a 2-minute argument to to the Commonwealth Court before being questioned by the three-judge panel.

Banks, citing a 1998 court decision, argued that the Commission’s attempt to review the school’s disciplinary practices is a violation of the college’s First Amendment rights. The earlier decision ruled that a Catholic parochial school’s disciplinary decisions were exempt from the court’s jurisdiction.

Cooper said that because the school accepts non-Catholic students and does not require students to enroll in Catholic courses or attend Catholic services it cannot claim religious immunity from the PHRC.

“Not being allowed to discriminate on the basis of race does not conflict with Chestnut Hill College’s religious doctrine, observance, or practices,” wrote city Solicitor Sozi Pedro Tulante, in an amicus brief defending the state commission on behalf of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations. “For Chestnut Hill College to argue otherwise, and to claim that it is not subject to the PHRC’s jurisdiction here, is to suggest a broad, unwarranted exception to the PHRC’s ability to enforce anti-discrimination law.”

At the court hearing, Judge Anne Covey asked Banks three separate times what Catholic doctrine was threatened by the commission’s jurisdiction.

Banks evaded Covey’s question and repeated that a religious institution’s disciplinary actions are sacred and protected under the constitution.

The school is also basing their appeal on a 1988 Pennsylvania court case that ruled that a Roman Catholic High School was “distinctly private” because of its religious affiliation. The college is arguing that their Catholic originations also prove that they are not a public accommodation. However, the PHRC questioned the validity of the case because it concerned a Catholic high school and not a college.

Cooper and the city’s human relations commission argued that the school’s claims of being a distinctly private institution were also inaccurate.

According to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act and the Pennsylvania Fair Educational Ordinance Act, a “public accommodation” is defined as an “accommodation, resort, or amusement which is open to, accepts or solicits the patronage of the general public, including . . . colleges and universities . . . but shall not include any accommodations which are in their nature distinctly private.”

Since the College hosts distinctly secular events open to the Philadelphia community, is subject to federal regulation, and receives state and federal aid Cooper said the school is therefore considered a public accommodation under the act.

In November, Philadelphia City Council adopted a resolution that condemned Chestnut Hill College and its appeal. Shortly after the adoption of the resolution, the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations filed its defense of the PHRC.

Mayor Jim Kenney has also weighed in on the school’s appeal twice on Twitter. Most recently, on Feb. 13 Kenney retweeted a Billy Penn article about the appeal with a comment that read, “This is a critical civil rights issue. Discrimination has no place in Philadelphia, and no place in our schools.”

Despite the heavy criticism the school has received from both the college community and the city, Sr. Carol Jean Vale maintains that filing the appeal was in the best interest of the college.

“We continue to say we did not discriminate, we do not discriminate, and it would never be our intent to discriminate against anyone for anything,” said Vale following the hearing.

If the school wins the appeal, it may end the two year lawsuit and subsequent jurisdictional battle. However, the PHRC still has the right to appeal the Commonwealth Court’s ruling to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

If the school loses the appeal, Meads’ lawsuit will be directed back to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission to be heard.

Since the school’s appeal has the potential to set the precedent that private and religious institutions are not under the jurisdiction of the state, it is likely that the PHRC will appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court if the Commonwealth court’s decision favors the college.

If the college’s argument is successful the precedent would not only apply to Catholic colleges but to all religious institutions in Pennsylvania. According to the brief filed by the PCRH, a total of 51 religiously affiliated colleges, 12 Catholic hospitals, and five Catholic health centers would also be able to claim immunity from the PHRC’s anti-discrimination laws.


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