Bettina Winkler was a middle schooler who was denied admission to Notre Dame Prep, a private Catholic high school in Pontiac, Michigan. She was the only student who had attended their middle school denied admission to the high school. Administrators allegedly told Winkler’s parents they didn’t accept learning disabled students, and that she should attend a public school because “they take anybody.”
Winkler filed suit under Michigan’s “Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act,” alleging illegal disability discrimination. The trial court allowed the case to go forward, but the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed. Winkler then appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court.
On June 27, 2017, the Michigan Supreme Court, in an unanimous decision, overturned the dismissal of the case. In its decision, the Court held that when a religious organization claims a First Amendment right to determine its admission policies, the trial court is not divested of jurisdiction. Instead, it is a court’s duty to inquire if the decision at issue legitimately rested on religious considerations protected under the First Amendment, or whether it was based on non-religious grounds. The Supreme Court sent it back to the Court of Appeals for further proceedings, including a determination as to whether Michigan’s Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act applies to private religious schools.
This decision is not only a victory for the Winklers, but has also set a precedent to ensure that any religious organization’s claim of ecclesiastical privilege is not a bar to suit, but requires examination by the trial court on a case-by-case basis.