Expelling a Student May Violate Pennsylvania’s Public Accommodation Law, Even for a Religious College

A Pennsylvania court decided that a Catholic College could be liable for violating the state’s public accommodation law for expelling a student, underscoring the evolving nature of the intersection of public accommodations and religious liberty rights.


Public Accommodation Laws: Expanding Anti-Discrimination Protection

Before diving into the case, a bit of background is helpful. Traditionally, public accommodation laws were focused on ensuring that places open to the public, like motels and restaurants, could not deny service based on race. Over time, however, these laws have evolved to cover many more businesses and organizations, as well as protect many more classes of people. These laws also give people who feel they have been denied enjoyment of the business or organization a way to file a complaint, and sometimes a private lawsuit. Pennsylvania’s current law (not unlike others across the country) is a public accommodation law that casts a wide net. In this case, a former student filed a complaint under the state’s public accommodation law, arguing he was expelled from the school because of his race.

The Chestnut Hill College Case

In his senior year, the student involved was dismissed after the College found he had stolen money that was supposed to be donated to charity. The student denied any wrongdoing, and provided receipts for where the funds had been spent. He also offered to personally pay back any amount the College thought was owed. The College refused the offer and expelled him. Results from the expulsion were severe. As a result of being expelled, the student—just months away from commencement—was unable to graduate. He also lost an internship, and was evicted from his on-campus housing. The student later filed a complaint with the state Human Rights Commission—the agency that enforces the state’s public accommodation law—arguing that the true reason he was dismissed was because he was African-American.

The Commission did an investigation into the student’s discrimination complaint. In this investigation, it uncovered that African-American students at the College were punished at a disproportionately higher rate than other students. The College also had a “Sanctions” policy that stated certain factors would be considered when determining punishments for student misconduct. These factors included the student’s past record and the student’s honesty, cooperation and willingness to make amends. The student in this case had no prior record of discipline, but did not receive leniency. Ultimately, the Commission found that the student had at least a colorable claim of discrimination.

After several years of litigation, the case eventually made its way to a Pennsylvania appellate court. The Court considered two important arguments: that the College wasn’t a public accommodation (so the law didn’t apply); and that exercising jurisdiction over the College had grave religious liberty implications. The Court rejected both arguments. First, the Court decided that the College was a public accommodation and subject to the State’s law. Pennsylvania’s public accommodation law specifically includes colleges and universities in its definition of what is a public accommodation. However, it has somewhat of a carve-out for “distinctly private” places. The College argued that it fell into this exception. The College had a good argument that it should be considered a distinctly private place, particularly because of the fact that the Court had decided in a previous case that Catholic parochial high schools were not public accommodations. In the end, however, the differences between Catholic primary and secondary schools, and Catholic colleges, persuaded the Court to rule the other way.

  • Parochial schools educate children, whereas colleges typically interact with adults.
  • The Parochial schools in the previous case were operated by the Diocese; the College here was simply affiliated with the Catholic Church.
  • The purpose of a Parochial school is indoctrination. Students in the previous case were required to attend mass and religious classes. The College in this case had no similar requirements.

Because of these fundamental differences, the Court concluded the College was a public accommodation subject to the State’s law.

The next question for the Court was whether the First Amendment otherwise prevented application of the law. The Court concluded no, mainly because of Pennsylvania court precedent. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has held that religious schools’ discipline of students are not entirely out of the purview of courts. Courts apply neutral principles of law rather than defer to these decisions. So in Pennsylvania, the courts consider whether the basis for the expulsion is grounded in Church doctrine (not reviewable) or whether it could be analyzed under a normal legal ground (reviewable). In this case, the Court pointed out that the College had not argued that the expulsion had anything to do with Catholic doctrine. The issue could be decided under neutral principles. Accordingly, the Court found no reason to defer to the College’s decision.

Four Practical Tips from the Case:

1. Public Accommodation Laws May Apply.

With all the laws floating around, it can be difficult to get a grasp on all the rules you must follow. This case is a good reminder that public accommodation laws may apply. Public accommodation laws are becoming expansive, covering more and more places and prohibiting discrimination on more and more grounds. It is best practice to understand your state’s public accommodation law and whether it covers your religious organization.

2. Take Time to Understand the Rules in Your State.

This case demonstrates how litigation can turn on an individual state’s interpretation of the law. What applies in one state may not apply in another. When taking an action that might expose you to liability (such as a discipline decision for a school), take time to understand how the law has been interpreted in your state. In this case, Pennsylvania had case law that made asserting a First Amendment defense more difficult. Don’t assume that because one state’s court comes out with a favorable decision, your state will as well. Understanding the rules in your jurisdiction is very important.

3. Ground Important Decisions in Doctrine.

The court in this case made much of the fact that the decision to expel the student had nothing to do with religious doctrine. It suggested that if it had, the decision might have come out differently. Where possible, have policies showing the religious position of the school, and ground decisions in religious doctrine. This principle is best practice for all of the important decisions a religious organization makes—from employment decisions to implementing school discipline.

4. Fairly Apply Discipline.

The state agency reviewing the student’s complaint discovered in its investigation that African-American students were punished more harshly than the general student population. The Court also made a point to include the fact that the College’s discipline policy should have considered factors such as the student’s cooperation in making amends. It is probably a safe assumption that the Court included these facts in its opinion to suggest that the student might not have been treated fairly. It is important to fairly apply disciplinary policies.


This case is interesting for a few reasons. First, it shows how a religious college might fall under a state’s public accommodation law. Second, it subjects a religious college’s student discipline decisions to judicial review. Finally, the case teaches several lessons on how to better implement student discipline, and how to protect your organization depending on your specific jurisdiction.

The case is Chestnut Hill College v. Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, No. 844 C.D. 2016 (Pa. Cmwlth. Apr. 7, 2017). Read the full opinion here: http://www.pacourts.us/assets/opinions/Commonwealth/out/844CD16_4-7-17.pdf?cb=1

Because of the generality of the information on this site, it may not apply to a given place, time, or set of facts. It is not intended to be legal advice, and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations