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Volokh Conspiracy

Congregation ordered to pay $60,000 based on finding of discrimination in excluding member from synagogue


Fortunately, the Texas Court of Appeals reversed this decision last week, in Hamashiach v. Adan (Tex. Ct. App. Mar. 3, 2015),

Malaika Adan was a member of Beth Yeshua Hamashiach, a Messianic Jewish synagogue that rents a space from Sharpstown Baptist Church. Adan is confined to a wheelchair and regularly used the chapel restroom until Sharpstown Baptist began complaining to Beth Yeshua about scratches on the door. A board member of Beth Yeshua informed Adan that she needed to begin using a different restroom in a separate building. Adan complained to the board member that neither restroom was wheelchair accessible.

When Beth Yeshua did not resolve the restroom issue, Adan emailed Mike Jeter, the pastor of Sharpstown Baptist. Adan informed Pastor Jeter that the chapel restroom did not meet the standards set forth in the Americans with Disabilities Act (the "ADA"), that she had a disability, and that she would sue Sharpstown Baptist if the issue was not fixed within thirty days.

The exchange between Adan and Beth Yeshua, unsurprisingly, was couched in scriptural terms (for more details, see the opinion). After some back and forth, the congregation's leaders excluded Adan from the synagogue for six weeks, writing:

After much prayer, biblical counsel and consultation, the leadership of Beth Yeshua haMashiach has decided on the following findings in order for you to be restored and allowed to attend Beth Yeshua again.

a) You are not allowed on the premises of Sharpstown Baptist Church for six weeks from Feb. 11th 2010.
b) You must send an apology letter to Rabbi Jim Pratt, Kathleen Elowitz, Steve Mullins & Pastor Mike Jeter showing evidence of repentance.
c) You are allowed only on Sharpstown Baptist Campus if approved by Sharpstown's Leadership.

These findings are based upon 1 Corinthians 5:11-13 and Ch 6:1-11. Restoration is confirmed in 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 and Proverbs 6:16-19.

Adan sued under the Texas law that banned discrimination based on disability in a place of public facility, and the trial court agreed with her:

The trial court declared that Beth Yeshua violated Adan's rights under Chapter 121 of the Texas Human Resources Code and discriminated against her by denying her admittance to Sharpstown Baptist because of her disability. The court granted Adan injunctive relief and awarded her statutory damages in the amount of $1,000, attorney's fees in the amount of $58,915.00, costs in the amount of $2,032.90, and post-judgment interest. Additionally, the trial court awarded Adan $10,000 in the event Beth Yeshua unsuccessfully appealed to the intermediate court of appeals and $15,000 in the event Beth Yeshua unsuccessfully appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.

But the Texas Court of Appeals disagreed:

[T]his was a religious dispute between a congregant and one of its members…. The series of communications attached to Adan's motion provide evidence that she was not banned from worship for complaining about the restroom, but rather she was temporarily banned for the manner in which she handled the situation. This evidence that Beth Yeshua decided to punish Adan for her actions and threats against Pastor Jeter, which it deemed contrary to the synagogue's values and its interpretation of the Bible, indicates that the punishment was an exercise of a religious function that the court may not impede.

Although Adan claims that she was discriminated against because of her disability, this claim arises out of an ecclesiastical matter—Beth Yeshua's decision to temporarily ban Adan from worshiping with the congregation of Beth Yeshua. This intertwining of the religious and secular aspects of Adan's complaint deprives the trial court of subject matter jurisdiction over Adan's claim….

Adan's claim is intertwined with and arises out of Beth Yeshua's decision to ban her from synagogue, which is an inherently religious function. Whether Beth Yeshua's explanation that this religious discipline was issued because of Adan's use of scriptural accusations against Pastor Jeter was genuine, or whether Adan was disciplined for asserting her rights as a disabled person, is a question the trial court cannot determine without inserting itself into internal matters of the synagogue's discipline.

Adan also argues that the trial court had subject matter jurisdiction because her claim can be decided by "neutral principles of law." Under this approach, a court may interpret church documents, such as a church constitution, in purely secular terms without relying on religious precepts in resolving the conflict. However, if the matter cannot be determined by the court without resolving a religious controversy, then the court must defer to the resolution of the doctrinal issue by the authoritative ecclesiastical body. In this case, there are no constitutions, by-laws, or other governing documents in the record indicating how the synagogue is governed.

The trial court determined on summary judgment that Beth Yeshua violated the Texas Human Resources Code because it discriminated against her by denying her admittance to Beth Yeshua. But there are no neutral principles of law that can be used to answer the question why Adan was denied admittance, which would require the courts to improperly resolve a religious controversy.