High court: Religious school admissions can be reviewed

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — State courts can intervene in some admission decisions at private religious schools, the Michigan Supreme Court said in a unanimous ruling issued Tuesday.

The 7-0 opinion written by Justice Bridget McCormack said state courts have jurisdiction over private schools in determining whether they violated the Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act in admission decisions.

The case stems from the Notre Dame Preparatory High School’s rejection of Bettina Winkler’s application. Winkler’s parents sued Notre Dame and the Marist Fathers of Detroit Inc., alleging the school violated federal anti-discrimination law for rejecting Winkler because of a learning disability.

She was a student at a middle school run by the Marist Fathers and was diagnosed with dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to court records.

The state’s highest court ruled there is no sweeping religious doctrine ban on reviewing private school policies. The courts have the power to decide whether to intervene on a case-by-case basis, McCormack wrote.

The Supreme Court is sending the case back to the Court of Appeals to decide how to address Winkler’s particular case.

“It’s really gratifying to see a unanimous decision,” said Winkler lawyer Nicholas Roumel. “It’s especially gratifying on the Winkler family who has been through so much.”

But the ruling can only do so much, he said. “Bettina is going to be long graduated from high school before this case is over,” Roumel said.

The Catholic school’s Ann Arbor-based lawyer James Walsh contended that the courts have no jurisdiction over a religious institution, an argument with which the state Court of Appeals agreed in ruling in favor of the Marist Fathers.

Walsh also argued that even if a court has jurisdiction, it doesn’t have the authority to intervene later and grant relief or “disrupt” the admissions decision, according to the opinion’s summary of the defendant’s claim.

“The doctrine, in short, requires a case-specific inquiry that informs how a court must adjudicate certain claims within its subject matter jurisdiction; it does not determine whether the court has such jurisdiction in the first place,” McCormack wrote, adding that appeals court “erred, albeit understandably.”

Walsh previously admitted in oral arguments before the Michigan Supreme Court that Winkler was not rejected for religious reasons, although he said: “This child, we do not want to teach our religion to.”


Twitter: @MikeGerstein

Staff Writer Sarah Rahal contributed