Monday, February 27, 2012

Disability Rights in Faith Communities

The fundamental argument over the past few weeks has been whether government has a right to overrule the practice and beliefs of religious groups. As we know, the Catholic Church has been allowed to restrict access to contraception for a long while. Even though a majority of women use birth control, the Church has refused to bend to popular will. Government sought to step in to provide what would seem to most as commonplace and unspectacular. Instead, an influential institution decided to stir up another skirmish in the culture wars.

If we are to be fair, religious groups and places of worship have long been given sufficient leeway. The Founding Fathers wished for a government that, as historian Ron Chernow put it, “passively tolerated” organized religion instead of directly intervening in its affairs. This decision was itself a reaction to the power, exclusivity, and influence of the state Church of England. The Anglican church long held an especially limited tolerance for other religious groups. Those who formed the United State of America felt a lasting anxiety, due to a peculiarly British dislike of Catholicism, which was often contemptuously condemned as “Popery.”

Returning to where we began, beyond reproductive rights or deep seeded prejudices, faith groups have been consistently allowed to discriminate. In particular, this includes one overlooked segment of the population: people with disabilities. Mark I. Pinsky’s recent book, Amazing Gifts: Stories of Faith, Disability, and Inclusion addresses the problem. “…Small or medium-sized congregations, which are the overwhelming majority of houses of worship in the United States, are effectively exempt from provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act.” Large gatherings, which include megachurches, are required to fully accommodate the disabled. Most others, however, are not required to make sufficient arrangements and, accordingly, they do not.

This compromise measure in the ADA act has enabled houses of worship to consistently overlook the needs of those with limitations. The act has been the law of the land since 1990, but is long overdo for an overhaul to keep it up to date. Legislation aside, the attitudes of congregations are regularly the primary stumbling blocks. At times, even the mildest of changes has been greeted with open hostility and contempt. Fearful of reform in any form, reasonable requests to accommodate the disabled are often opposed and blocked.

My own Quaker Meeting has recently wrestled with making changes to the main Worship room, a historic, but acoustically problematic space. Friends with hearing problems have long asked that something be done so that they might be able to hear each First Day Worship’s vocal ministry. I feel certain that making a welcoming space for people with disabilities could grow the Meeting. But I have had to recently concede that people can be fixated upon their own dislikes enough that they do not see the greater gain beyond. A few modifications here and there might very well provide the renewed vibrancy and energy that many Friends have long desired.

Still, one cannot overlook one looming impediment: money. Cost alone can be exceedingly prohibitive. Membership among many faith groups is in decline. Often, congregations lose a member for each one they gain. Membership rolls reflect this phenomenon. Even with a sufficient number of frequent attenders and members, often only a small minority contribute money. With limited resources, 20% of the congregation strains to support the demands and needs of the other 80%.

If houses of worship are financially unable to make these needed reforms, then other avenues need to be considered. Soliciting money makes many people queasy, but it may be unavoidable. Depending upon charity alone reminds me of an argument from another time. Herbert Hoover, himself a Quaker, believed that churches, charities, businesses, and relatives ought to aid those out of work. His perspective was that of strict government non-intervention. Franklin Roosevelt, as we know, had a very different approach. The New Deal established a precedent that government must intercede where the private sector fails.

Should houses of worship refuse to make a space for disabled citizens, who or what will step in to ensure that they can? Though the Catholic Church asserts a degree of influence because of its size, wealth, and historic importance, it does not dominate American society. This country is home to multiple faiths, multiple cultural traditions, and very diverse houses of worship. Would it be feasible to expect government to subsidize the very means by which disabled people can be fully integrated into faith communities? Many have been waiting for years and may be waiting much longer.

Them that's got shall get
Them that's not shall lose
So the Bible said and it still is news
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that's got his own
That's got his own

Yes, the strong gets more
While the weak ones fade
Empty pockets don't ever make the grade
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that's got his own
That's got his own

-Billie Holiday

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