Unlocking Accommodations for Disabled Students in Private Religious Schools

Sode, Campbell | August 16, 2021

Many disabled students exercise their First Amendment right to choose to attend a private religious school only to learn that the school will not provide reasonable accommodations crucial to their academic success. Because private religious schools are exempt from Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act and its reasonable accommodation mandate, disabled students that choose such schools may be forced to find a more welcoming learning environment elsewhere. As a result, disabled students are currently unable to enjoy their Free Exercise Clause right to choose to enroll in their ideal private religious schools to the same extent as their nonhandicapped peers.

This inequality can be reduced by an expansive application of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is known as the Rehab Act and covers entities that receive federal financial assistance. The Rehab Act is a key statute for disabled students in private religious schools since there is no religious exemption from its requirement that reasonable accommodations be made for the disabled. However, the Rehab Act will achieve maximum potency only if private religious schools that hold tax-exempt status, or indirectly benefit from federal programs via a parent entity, are classified as recipients of federal financial assistance for Rehab Act purposes. Also, a Rehab Act regulation that allows private religious schools to charge disabled students for reasonable accommodations should be limited so cost-shifting is only possible if the school genuinely cannot afford the accommodations at issue. And this approach to the problems disabled students face at private religious schools would not infringe upon these schools’ First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion.


University of Virginia School of Law J.D. 2018; Rutgers University B.A. 2015. I also want to specially thank the Northwestern University Law Review Online staff, especially HanByul Chang, Allison Clark, Olga Cosme Toledo, Tyler Dallas, Julia McCartney, Emily Starbuck, Leah Beukelman, Negassi Tesfamichael, and Samuel Young for their invaluable contributions to this Essay and their exemplary editorial assistance.

Copyright 2021 by Campbell Sode

Cite as: Campbell Sode, Unlocking Accommodations for Disabled Students in Private Religious Schools, 116 Nw. U. L. Rev. Online 171 (2021), https://scholarlycommons.law.northwestern.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1315&context=nulr_online.