Religious Schools

About 10% of all students in the United States attend private elementary or secondary schools. Nearly 80% of these students attend religious private schools. Some people think that religious schools are exempt from antidiscrimination laws and so there is nothing that parents can do. This is false. First, many religious schools must comply with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act if they receive federal funding. Second, there are many strategies you can use to pressure schools to live up to their moral commitments to all students. Read on for more information about how you can make sure your child gets the diabetes care he or she needs in order to make the most of his or her experience.

Are there any federal laws that protect my child who attends a religious school against discrimination on the basis of disability?

If your child's religious school receives federal funding, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 protects your child with diabetes from discrimination on the basis of disability.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal law that protects individuals with disabilities from discrimination. However, the ADA contains an exemption for religious institutions, including religious schools. Therefore, the ADA does not apply to religious schools or offer students attending these schools protection from discrimination.

What are some sources of federal funding that require religious schools to comply with Section 504?

Many religious schools receive federal funding, including a large percentage of Catholic schools and school systems. Possible sources of federal funding may include:

  • Free or reduced breakfast and lunch programs
  • Special education grants
  • Funding for at-risk students
  • Technology assistance or program grants
  • Funding for textbook or supplies
  • Professional development programs for teachers and staff
  • School choice voucher programs

How can I determine whether my child's school receives federal funding?

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this question. However, the following steps may be helpful:

  • Ask: Ask the principal or administration of your school, or the church, synagogue, or other place of worship connected to the school. If your school is overseen by another institution (for example a local Catholic diocese), contact its offices.
  • Check the school handbook: Search for indications of special programs or services.
  • Check with other parents or the parent teacher association: Other parents can be valuable resources, particularly if they have negotiated with the school on behalf of their child.
  • Search the Internet (including the school's website): Check online to see if there is access to a school's records or information on the school's programs and services.

What about the separation of church and state?

Religious private schools are allowed to accept federal funding for school lunch programs, technology assistance, teacher development and training, and other programs that do not have a religious focus. But once a school makes the decision to accept federal money, it is required to follow Section 504 and not discriminate against students with disabilities. Accepting federal money does not change the fact that religious schools are still allowed to teach students about religion, hold worship services, and express religious principles.

Are there any state laws that apply to my child's school?

Possibly. Most states have anti-discrimination laws that resemble the ADA or Section 504. While some states exempt religious institutions from compliance with their civil rights laws, others make no such exemption. These states provide some protections for students with disabilities from discrimination even in religious schools. Even if religious schools are not generally covered by state laws, if they receive state or local funding, they still may have anti-discrimination obligations. Religious schools that receive school choice vouchers and charter schools may fall into this category. See what your state's laws say.

My child's school is not covered by Section 504 or state anti-discrimination laws. What can I do to make sure my child is safe at school, is treated fairly and is free from discrimination?

There are many ways that you can make sure that your child is treated fairly and gets the care she or he needs, even if Section 504 or state anti-discrimination or diabetes care laws do not apply. Here are some suggestions:

  • Check state law & policy: Some private school students may be protected by various aspects of state contract law or state tort law.
  • Check to see if your child's school has a non-discrimination policy: If so, be prepared to remind the school of its obligations under that policy.
  • Appeal to your school's ethical values: Many religious private schools promote value systems that encourage tolerance, diversity and inclusion for individuals with disabilities.
  • Educate the school: Your child's school may be reacting out of fear or misunderstanding. Provide the school with as much information, background and training materials as possible.
  • Be prepared to negotiate: Be prepared to meet with the school and remain flexible. Work together with the school to put together a plan that will help keep your child safe, healthy and fully engaged at school.
  • Appeal to a higher authority: If the stumbling block at your child's school is the principal, then be prepared to elevate your concerns to another level. For example, you could contact the school's governing board, the pastor, rabbi or other religious authority, the church council, or the synagogue board. If your school is part of a larger denomination, you can also contact individuals at the relevant governing authority, such as a diocese, meeting or synod.

What other resources are there?

There are several resources that can help you make the case for fair treatment for your child:

  • The Interfaith Disability Advocacy Coalition (IDAC) has many resources itself, and also has a directory of member organizations, including Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, Sikh and many more religous organizations that advocate for the fair treatment of people with disabilities.
  • Responding to Students with Special Needs by Sister Mary Angela Shaughnessy, SCN, JD, PhD discusses both legal and moral dimensions of accepting and accommodating students with disabilities in religious schools.
  • The Catholic Diocese of Arlington, VA uses a Diabetes Medical Management Plan based on the National Diabetes Education Program and provides an example of how large religious school systems can make sure that students with diabetes are included and safe at school.
  • Last Reviewed: March 19, 2015
  • Last Edited: August 17, 2016

Articles from Diabetes Forecast® magazine:

Diabetes Forecast