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Va. town says church school prohibited because disabled kids would ‘endanger’ other children

ADF attorneys file suit against city of Fredericksburg

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — Alliance Defense Fund attorneys filed a federal lawsuit Monday against the city of Fredericksburg for its refusal to allow a church to begin a school program for mentally and emotionally challenged children despite a recommendation of approval by city planning officials. ADF attorneys say the city is violating federal laws geared expressly to avoid such a prohibition and that the city’s reasons for denial of a permit are baseless.

“Churches shouldn’t be singled out for discrimination, especially when attempting to expand their ministries to safely serve the needs of the community--in this case, disabled children,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley. “No disabled students would even be on campus at the same time as other students, and the church has the approval of planning officials because it has met all zoning requirements to run such a facility.  There’s no legitimate reason for a denial, so the city’s stated reasons only serve to feed old stereotypes about the disabled.”

Calvary Christian Church applied for a permit to expand its ministry to include a day school for mentally and emotionally disabled children. The children each have an Individual Education Plan that states they would academically succeed in the environment of a private day school. Calvary made the decision to open the day school after Pastor Michael Hirsch said he sensed a divine calling for the church to reach out and minister to disabled children.

The city of Fredericksburg Planning Commission recommended approval for the school program after a public hearing, but the city council denied a special-use permit on the basis of supposed safety concerns for other children attending the church’s daycare.  The concerns were cited even though the church’s daycare children would only be in attendance during the early morning and afternoon--before and after the disabled students would be present. The city council also expressed concern that Fredericksburg was becoming “saturated” with facilities that provide services to the disabled.

ADF attorneys argue that the city council’s denial is a violation of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which prevents zoning officials from singling out churches for discriminatory treatment. The lawsuit also contends that the city council has violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits the government from unlawfully discriminating against children because of their disabilities.

Matthew Fender of Richmond, one of more than 2,000 attorneys in the ADF alliance, is serving as local counsel in the lawsuit Calvary Christian Church v. City of Fredericksburg, which was filed with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. 

ADF is a legal alliance of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations defending the right of people to freely live out their faith. Launched in 1994, ADF employs a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.