St. Ann admission controversy highlights exemption for religious institutions in Prairie Village non-discrimination ordinance

Jay Senter - March 12, 2019 11:29 am
Prairie Village’s non-discrimination ordinance includes exemptions for religious institutions.

In December, the Prairie Village city council approved a new non-discrimination ordinance that provides legal protections to LGBTQ+ individuals, ensuring that they can’t be denied accommodations or employment based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Just three months later, St. Ann Catholic School in the city has attracted national attention for its decision to deny admission to the child of a same-sex couple because of their sexual orientation, with the Catholic archdiocese saying that “the parents cannot model behaviors and attitudes consistent with the Church’s teaching.”

But language in Prairie Village’s non-discrimination ordinance, which went into effect Dec. 25, would likely pose a major obstacle to a complaint filed in regards to the St. Ann situation.

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While city officials are careful to note that the city has not “has not received a complaint as to the situation at St. Ann’s (and does not know if it will)” and thus “cannot offer an official conclusion on the application of the NDO at this time,” they point out that the language in the ordinance includes specific carve outs for religious institutions.

“In terms of public accommodations, the NDO does specifically exempt religious organizations (defined as a church, mosque, temple, synagogue, or other entity principally devoted to religious practice or religious teaching),” City Administrator Wes Jordan said in a statement provided to the Shawnee Mission Post. “The NDO also does not apply to employment claims related to employment by a religious organization ‘that consists of religious teaching, ministry, or other religious duties or practices.’ These provisions were included primarily in consideration of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

The potential application of the proposed ordinances to religious organizations was a consideration that prompted considerable discussion in the lead up to the passage of NDOs in both Roeland Park and Prairie Village, which have active Catholic communities around St. Agnes and St. Ann parishes, respectively. In both cities, the final language put into law by the governing bodies included exemptions for churches and other religious organizations.

Still, Jordan said, “determining whether the NDO would or would not apply is fact-specific.”

“For example, the City’s investigator and hearing officer may have to determine whether or not a claimed religious organization is indeed ‘principally devoted to religious practice or religious teaching’ or whether a position ‘consists of religious teaching, ministry or other religious duties or practices,’” Jordan wrote. “Similarly, whether any other private school…qualifies as a ‘place of public accommodation’ would depend on the nature of the entity operating the school, and possibly the nature of the specific program being offered (that is, a school may have different standards or requirements for full-time enrollment than for spring-break programs, athletic camps, or the like).”

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