Some churches operate a daycare and/or preschool for the children of the congregation and the public. For many facilities, there is an application process for the admission of new students. Churches should consider their admissions policies for children with special needs. This point was illustrated in a 2018 church case.

Calvary Church operates Calvary Child Development Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. In 2016, a group of five parents sued Calvary Church with a claim of discrimination against their children. The children had various disabilities. The lawsuit claims the Center expelled some of the children because of their medical conditions.

The parents said they were made to feel unwelcome by the Center because of the disabilities of their children. In addition, the parents stated the Center failed to make reasonable accommodations for the children.

The lawsuit alleges several illegal acts and violations of law by the Church. The charges included Violation of the NC Persons With Disabilities Act, Breach of Contract, Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act, Tortious Interference With a Contract and Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress.

Each of these claims include different legal elements and must be defended separately. This can be costly for any defendant, especially a church. Based on the legal statements, the parents allege they were harmed in multiple ways.

For churches that operate a preschool, this case offers some guidance on how to avoid disgruntled parents and litigation. The case was settled on October 3, 2018, two years after the lawsuit was filed. The published terms of the settlement provide a list of precautions other churches should consider in their own practices.

As part of the settlement agreement, Calvary Church said it would take several steps to make improvements.

1. The Church agreed to change its admissions policy to allow children with disabilities. Special needs children will be admitted with the condition the Church is able to provide reasonable accommodations.

2. The Church officials decided to retain the services of a registered nurse during the school year to serve students.

3. The Church will also provide support and training for special education.

4. Finally, the Church management agreed to allow third-party occupational therapists and other medical professionals access to the classrooms to work with special needs students.

This case points out what can go wrong when church policies and practices do not comply with the legal standards. Church officials should review their policies and practices concerning the treatment of children with special needs. If a church is uncertain about its own practices, an outside expert’s help may be consulted.

Your church lawyer can help you examine your policies to ensure the provisions are in line with North Carolina law. Your church insurance carrier may have model procedures that can be adopted to police your processes. State officials may be called upon to give the church guidance on best practices. Members of your congregation may have professional experience that can be utilized.

Open communications is a good way to avoid misunderstandings and lawsuits. It is important to have regular conversations with parents who entrust their children to the church daycare and/or school. These parents or caregivers may have advice or grievances that have not been shared yet.

The treatment of special needs children is an important governance and risk management matter. Have a conversation with your church management to make sure this topic gets the full attention it deserves.