Religious Colleges Subject to the Jurisdiction of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission

On April 7, 2017, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania issued its opinion in Chestnut Hill College v. Pennsylvania Human Rel. Commn., 844 C.D. 2016, — A –, 2017 WL 1289250, (Pa. Commw. Apr. 7, 2017), holding, in a case of first impression, that a Catholic college’s decision to expel a student could be challenged under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (“PHRA”).

During administrative proceedings before the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (“PHRC”), Chestnut Hill College (“the college”) claimed that the PHRC lacked jurisdiction over the matter because, the college asserted, it was not a “public accommodation” under the PHRA and, moreover, that any exercise of jurisdiction would violate the college’s First Amendment rights.  The PHRC rejected those arguments and the appeal followed.

The Commonwealth Court affirmed.  The Court noted that the scope of “public accommodations” under the PHRA is broad.  Accordingly, “[p]rovided the College accepts . . . the patronage of the general public, and is not in its nature distinctly private, it constitutes a public accommodation as defined by the Act.”  The Court rejected the college’s position that it was “distinctively private” given its religious affiliation.   The Court noted that unlike a parochial school, which is heavily focused on indoctrinating students in the relevant religious faith, religious colleges remain largely secular in their educational functions.  The Court also rejected the college’s position that the First Amendment precluded jurisdiction.  While the Court recognized that, under the First Amendment, “generally courts must defer to church hierarchy in the resolution of any ecclesiastical matter,” the Court concluded that the expulsion decision could be reviewed under “neutral principles of law” and thus the judiciary would not be tasked with delving into religious doctrine.

Chestnut Hill broadens the scope of the PHRA and PHRC.  Prior to Chestnut Hill, many religious colleges and universities could rely on established precedent holding that parochial grade schools are not “public accommodations” to argue that their institutions are outside the scope of the PHRA and PHRC.  Such precedent is now largely limited to parochial grade schools.

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