Written By: Scott R. Thomas


A dispute is brewing in Philadelphia that will test the shield of the Catholic Church against government intrusion into its affairs.  On February 7th, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania heard arguments in Chestnut Hill College v. Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.  The case examined the core of Chestnut Hill College’s character as an educational institution.  The Court will determine whether the school founded in 1924 by the Sisters of Saint Joseph is a religious college whose internal decisions are beyond the reach of governmental review, or rather a secular place of learning, subject to all sovereign scrutiny.

The case arises from Chestnut Hill’s decision to expel a senior in 2012.  The student produced a play.   The proceeds were to be donated to the Lupus Foundation.  The student was told to deposit the proceeds in the Student Activities Safe so that the money could later be donated as promised.  Instead, the student deposited nothing, donated $500 to Lupus, and spent $800 on a cast party where alcohol was served to minors in violation of school policy and Pennsylvania law.

A disinterested professor conducted a hearing and, on the basis of the facts presented, recommended that the student be expelled.  The student appealed to the College Appeals Board.  The four Board members—one of whom was a student—unanimously supported the expulsion recommendation.   The recommendation was ultimately adopted by the Chestnut Hill president.  Mr. Meads then appealed to the Commission, charging that his expulsion violated the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act because it was the product of religious discrimination.

Chestnut Hill asked the Commission to dismiss the charge on grounds that, as a religious institution, the Act was inapplicable to it.  The Commission denied Chestnut Hill’s request last May and the College brought an appeal in state court.  Chestnut Hill wants Mr. Meads’ case dismissed.  The Commission wants the Court to allow the case to proceed so it may determine whether Mr. Meads’ claim has validity.  The Court will make its own decision, without regard to the Commission’s initial ruling.

Both sides have raised procedural arguments in hopes of winning on a technicality.  For example, Chestnut Hill argues that Mr. Meads did not file his discrimination claim in a timely manner.  The Commission, on the other hand, argues that Chestnut Hill failed to follow the steps to obtain judicial review and has waived its rights.

The key issue, however, is whether Chestnut Hill is a “public accommodation” under the Act.  The Act defines “public accommodation” 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.”

Chestnut Hill seems to have prior court decisions on its side.  In 1988, a Pennsylvania Court decided that a Catholic parochial school in Philadelphia was not a “public accommodation” because it was “distinctly private.”  Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia v. Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.   The Court found that Catholic schools are an “integral part of the religious mission of the Catholic church” and the “raison d’etre of parochial schools is the propagation of religious faith.”  For those reasons, the Act was held to be inapplicable.

Chestnut Hill also argues that allowing the Commission to review its disciplinary decisions would violate its First Amendment rights.  In 1998, a Court held that the freedom of religion clause prevented courts from reviewing the disciplinary decisions of a Catholic parochial school in Allentown, saying: “whenever the question of discipline, or of faith, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law [has] been decided by the . . . church . . ., the legal tribunals must accept such decisions as final . . . .” Gaston v. Diocese of Allentown.

For its part, the Commission argues that those Court decisions—which involved elementary and high schools—should not apply to Catholic colleges.  The Commission offers no cases to support this view.  Nor does the Commission explain why a Catholic high school would be “a powerful vehicle for transmitting the Catholic faith to the next generation” but a Catholic college somehow would not.

The Commission also emphasized that Chestnut Hill admits non-Catholic students.  This factor is unlikely to carry much weight because it was present in the 1988 Philadelphia case but did not prevent the Court from ruling in the school’s favor.  Finally, the Commission stresses that Chestnut Hill receives state and federal money.  No court, however, has held that the receipt of governmental aid somehow strips an institution of its character as a private, religious institution.

The Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations also submitted a brief as an “amicus curiae.”  This “friend of the court” brief was more sensational than legal and attributed positions to Chestnut Hill that the College never asserted.  Bold-face assertions—such as “Chestnut Hill College Should Not Be Allowed to Pick and Choose When and How It Will Discriminate on the Basis of Race”—are unlikely to persuade the judges on the merits.  The Philadelphia Commission almost argued “the sky is falling” when it predicted a decision in Chestnut Hill’s favor would enable 51 colleges, 12 hospitals and 5 health centers to discriminate on the basis of race with impunity.  These assertions seem to border on desperation and make Chestnut Hill’s arguments seem even stronger in comparison.

In its brief, Chestnut Hill quoted a 1985 decision in which a court wrote: “When Caesar enters the Temple to decide what the Temple believes, he can leave behind only his own views.”  This case will test that philosophy and decide whether the deference that Pennsylvania courts have shown to religious educational institutions for nearly three decades should continue.

If you would like more information about these issues, please contact Scott Thomas.   He welcomes the opportunity to work with you.  Scott’s direct line is 859.578.3862.  You can email him at [email protected].  If there is a particular topic you would like to see addressed in a blog, please send Scott an email with your ideas.

Hemmer DeFrank (1)