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The Regional Synod of New York

The Shameful Wall of Exclusion (Part II)

To read Part I of these articles, click here.


28 years ago today, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Leading up to this anniversary, RCA Coordinator for Disability Concerns Terry DeYoung has shared resources and information that churches may find helpful as the RCA continues to work toward full ADA compliance and a church where everybody belongs. Please take some time to read and share the information below.

“Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

—President George H.W. Bush
July 26, 1990 at the signing of the ADA

RCA friends,

The largest crowd ever to attend a White House signing gathered 28 years ago today, culminating decades of work by the disability rights community that was built on the foundations of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, signed by President Bush on July 26, 1990, is sometimes referred to as the emancipation proclamation for people with disabilities.

This excellent 7-minute video provides commentary from a half-dozen prominent disability advocates who were present for the ceremony on the south lawn of the White House.

Those with President Bush on the platform on that sun-splashed day were (from left) Evan Kemp, chair of the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission; the Rev. Harold Wilke, United Church of Christ minister; Sandra Parrino, chair of the National Council on Disability; and Justin Dart, chair of the President’s Council on Disabilities. The attached photo is inscribed by President Bush to Just Dart (courtesy of the National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institution).

Tomorrow I will conclude this series of emails with more about how the ADA affects religious institutions, including congregations and seminaries. Thank you for reading and watching!

Peace in Christ,


Terry A. DeYoung
Coordinator for Disability Concerns
Reformed Church in America

July 27, 2018

RCA friends,

Today I am concluding this series of emails by focusing on how the Americans with Disabilities Act signed 28 years ago affects religious institutions. Whole publications have been written to address specifics of what this means, so this email broadly captures just a few of the highlights. (You may send me specific questions if you like and I’ll offer my best guess, but be warned that for actual legal advice about these matters I’ll refer you to Paul Karssen, the GSC’s general counsel!)

The ADA challenges many of the longstanding myths and stereotypes that have locked people into roles of dependency, stagnation, and unfulfilled potential. Under the ADA, people with disabilities are recognized as full citizens rather than as patients in need of treatment and supervision. It shifts federal policy away from the charitable model of disability toward a social, economic, political, and psychological view of human diversity. It intends to ensure that people with disabilities receive equal opportunity to participate in society, free from discrimination.

Although religious institutions and the entities they control are exempt from some sections of the law, most faith-based institutions would say they remain governed by the moral mandates of love and justice. As the late Jim Brady put it when he was vice chairman of the National Organization on Disability (NOD): “Are religious organizations subject to the ADA? Yes! And to a higher authority as well.”

Said another way: even if an organization such as a church is not legally required to comply with a specific aspect of the ADA, why would it not want to do whatever it reasonably could to accommodate and welcome people with disabilities? In the spirit of the Great Commandment, the Great Commission, and the new commandment (John 13:34), following the spirit of the ADA seems like the right thing to do in becoming an accessible, inclusive, missional church where everybody belongs and everybody serves.

The ADA mandates equal access for people with disabilities in five broad areas: employment (known as Title 1 in the ADA), state and local government services, including public transportation (Title II), public accommodations and services provided by private entities (Title III), telecommunications (Title IV), and miscellaneous provisions (Title V).

Here are some commonly asked questions (and very general answers):

  • Are all employees of religious organizations covered by the employment provisions of the ADA? (Generally, yes, with the exception of those involved in the religious ministry such as ministers, priests, or rabbis; otherwise, all employees of a religious organization with 15 or more employees are covered under Title I.)
  • Are individual congregations required by the ADA to make their buildings accessible? (No. Individual congregations are considered religious organizations and, as such, are not subject to the accessibility requirements of Title III. However, if a space is leased to a public accommodation—as an election polling place, for example—the tenant must ensure that the space meets the requirements of Title III.)
  • When a religious organization leases or donates space to a public accommodation, what are the responsibilities of the religious organization for ADA compliance? (Technically, the religious organization has no obligations under Title III, even when serving as a landlord to a public accommodation. On the other hand, all public accommodations not controlled by a religious organization remain subject to Title III when they lease space—such as an independent daycare center; then, responsibility for compliance rests with the tenant.)
  • Does the ADA public accommodations section apply to a religious college or seminary that receives no direct state or federal funding but has one or more students with federally sponsored guaranteed loans or grants? (If the college or seminary is itself a religious organization or an entity controlled by a religious organization, Title III would not apply. However, student use of federal guaranteed loans or grants obligates the school to comply with the accessibility and nondiscrimination requirements of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.)
  • Must a camp run by a church or synagogue accept campers with disabilities? (No. A camping program controlled by a religious organization is exempted from Title III.)

As you can tell, it’s complicated. The ADA is not perfect. Even with major amendments approved in 2010, it has been used at times for frivolous lawsuits and other abuses. And, the ADA is not exempt from being eroded by court rulings or a presidential administration. But as you’ll hear in this 6-minute video by the ADA National Network, it continues to make a difference for people with disabilities.

As I wrote in the first installment of this series, in 2015 RCA general secretary Tom De Vries and CRC executive director Steve Timmermans signed a joint declaration to “resolve that the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed

Church in North America will continue to work toward full ADA compliance in our communities and toward accessible, welcoming congregations and ministries, where everybody belongs and everybody serves.”

Before that, in 2011, both the RCA General Synod Council and the CRC Synod made formal commitments to provide reasonable accommodations for full accessibility at meetings of our highest assemblies.

I count it an honor to serve in a denomination and in a partnership with CRC Disability Concerns that affirm accessibility and inclusion as non-negotiables. Thank you for your efforts in living out this commitment we share as the body of Christ.

Peace in Christ,


Terry A. DeYoung
Coordinator for Disability Concerns
Reformed Church in America