Court weighs Catholic school rebuff of disabled student

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — A lawyer representing a Pontiac Catholic high school admitted Thursday to the Michigan Supreme Court that the school rejected a student with a disability on nonreligious grounds and had no interest in teaching her.

The attorney for Notre Dame Preparatory High School argued the school was within its religious rights when it rejected Bettina Winkler’s application for admission and says the court doesn’t have jurisdiction to intervene in religious decisions.

But the parents of Winkler sued Notre Dame and the Marist Fathers of Detroit Inc., alleging that she was denied admission to the private school because of a learning disability and arguing this runs afoul of anti-discrimination laws. She was a student at a middle school also run by the Marist Fathers and was diagnosed with dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

James Walsh, a lawyer representing the Marist Fathers of Detroit Inc., said the student was not rejected for admission on religious grounds when asked by a justice.

“You don’t have to give religious justification to fire your ministerial employee. A religious school has an absolute right under the First Amendment to decide who to admit or not admit,” Walsh said during oral arguments.

“This child, we don’t want to teach our religion to,” he said, emphatically, after a later question.

The court’s decision, which is expected later this year, will further shape which decisions at religious schools can be justified by First Amendment rights or limited by nondiscrimination laws in a nation with a strict separation between matters of church and state.

Walsh said religion “permeates” every aspect of education at the Notre Dame High, and said the student’s disability would have thwarted the school’s mission to “effectively convey” its religious message — an argument that was not included in the school’s brief.

“We do not want Bettina Winkler to be a student at our school, which has a significant religious component,” he said.

Chief Justice Stephen Markman suggested Thursday that the school’s lawyer was arguing to expand what kinds of decisions the court cannot intervene in on the basis of religion.

“You’re essentially arguing for a broadening of the ecclesiastical exception,” Markman said.

The Marist Fathers asked for the claim to be dismissed because it would entangle the courts “in questions of religious doctrine or ecclesiastical polity,” an argument that Walsh stressed again on Thursday.

Winkler’s lawyer, Nicholas Roumel, argued the high school was interpreting its religious freedoms too broadly and that this was a case of simple discrimination.

“It’s the kind of case that can be decided without straying into those decisions of ecclesiastical religious doctrine or ecclesiastical polity,” Roumel said.

Winkler was given assurances by the high school that she would be accepted and was the only applicant from Notre Dame Marist middle school rejected that year, according to Roumel's brief.

But Winkler’s lawyer will have to prove she was rejected because of her learning disability, said Wayne State University law professor Robert Sedler. He said he disagrees with the lower state Court of Appeals ruling that civil courts couldn’t be involved because the issue involved a religious school.

“If she were denied admission because of her disability, then that would be a violation of the statute,” Sedler said.