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Expert Q&A

Is a student at a private, religious university protected against discrimination under the Americans With Disabilities Act?

An issue recently came up with a patient of mine whom I have been treating for ADHD since he was 9 years old. He is now 21 and transferred last year from a local community college where he was a straight-A student and had an accommodation plan to a private, Lutheran university. The patient is in a church music director program.

One faculty person at this private university started raising concerns midway through this past year about my patient’s behavior during unstructured class time. The faculty member spoke with a counselor at the university to discuss this patient’s goofy behavior.

Subsequent to this program, my patient went on a school-related trip with the teacher and she documented my patient’s behavior every step of the trip so she could bring her complaints to the administration upon their return. All of the behaviors revolved around silly, “immature” behavior and never involved anything that was dangerous or illegal.

I have talked to my patient about his longstanding pharmacotherapy but he doesn’t like how he feels on the medication when he’s not tasked with studying. He also has a seizure disorder, so medicating him is tricky. The teacher has taken her concerns to the department and has suggested that my patient isn’t fit for the director of church music program.

I know that this situation is likely different than it would be in a public university because of the separation of church and state. Does my patient have any legal recourse?

Dear Dr.:

As a rule, religiously controlled organizations are not subject to the protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act. If the school receives grants or direct financial support from the federal government, it may be covered under the non-discrimination provisions of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Complaints against colleges and universities for disability discrimination can be made to the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, which investigates claims of disability discrimination and could determine if the school is covered by Section 504. If not, there may not be a clear basis in federal law to take action.

However, some state, regional, or local human rights laws or regulations cover religiously controlled institutions even if they are not governed by federal disability laws. The student may want to seek legal consultation from a knowledgeable disability law attorney in your area.

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