NEW ORLEANS — A new class-action lawsuit alleged the Archdiocese of New Orleans discriminated against thousands of children with disabilities by not accommodating them at area Catholic schools.
Attorney Christopher Edmunds of Metairie filed the lawsuit in Orleans Parish Civil District Court this week on behalf of prospective Catholic school students with physical or learning disabilities.
The suit claimed the Archdiocese and affiliated Catholic schools regularly ask 'unlawful' questions about prospective students’ disabilities or medical information on application forms, allegedly in violation of Louisiana’s Civil Rights Act for Persons with Disabilities.
That law prohibits educational institutions that receive state funds from using an 'application for admission that elicits or attempts to elicit information ... concerning the disability of an otherwise qualified applicant for discriminatory purposes.'
The lawsuit argues that the Archdiocese and individual Catholic schools are bound by that law and another one requiring public accommodations for the disabled because they receive state education funding.
Records provided by the Louisiana Department of Education in response to a public records request show the Archdiocese and other area Catholic schools received at least $8 million from the state in 2019-20 for textbooks, school lunches, required services, and from the Education Excellence Fund.
Problems with application forms
Edmunds also gathered copies of several Catholic school application forms. Some, like Archbishop Shaw High School, come right out and ask applicants to 'list any physical limitation' and 'list any learning disabilities.' Others, like Pope John Paul the Second High School in Slidell, ask questions that Edmunds said are designed to elicit that information.
Edmunds reached out to the Archdiocese last year and asked that those application questions be changed. Archdiocese General Counsel Susie Zeringue responded with an email in November 2021 that defended the applications, saying they had undergone 'intense legal review.'
"Please be assured our school leadership does not use information from our applications to discriminate against any prospective student in a manner contrary to law," Zeringue wrote.
Edmunds said he filed suit because the schools were unwilling to change.
The new lawsuit expands on one Edmunds filed against Mount Carmel Academy in 2020. It alleged a girl with strong grades was discouraged from even applying to the all-girls high school after school leaders learned she had cerebral palsy, was wheelchair-bound, and would need an aide if she attended the school.
Mount Carmel President Sister Camille Anne Campbell left a voicemail for the girl's mother, a fellow Mount Carmel alumna.
“We don't have the accommodations and I do think our academic program would be substantially difficult for her,” Campbell said in the recorded message.
That lawsuit claimed the school had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 because it had received federal money from the Payroll Protection Program during the pandemic.
The case settled out of court. The terms can’t be disclosed, but Edmunds said the girl is not attending Mount Carmel.
The new class-action lawsuit doesn't seek monetary damages, just accommodations for students with disabilities.
“When you have disabilities, even if it's something small or something major, you experience discrimination every day,” said Edmunds, whose own son, Oscar, was born with cognitive and physical disabilities.
One Case inspired by another
Edmunds said the case was also inspired by Adam Linebarger, who couldn’t get the Catholic high school education his parents wanted for him.
He has spina bifida, a birth defect that damaged his spinal cord and left him paralyzed from the waist down.
But with some help from an aide, Linebarger did well in private school, at Kehoe-France in Metairie.
“He had great grades with accommodations,” his mother, Wendy Linebarger said.
But when Linebarger graduated from Kehoe-France in 2016 and Wendy started looking at Catholic high schools, she said she was turned away before they could even apply.
She said they weren’t willing to let her to provide an education aide to help Adam get around and to read material to him, even though she was willing to pay for it.
Linebarger said the Archdiocese told her it did have one high school that could accommodate Adam’s academic needs: Holy Rosary.
But all the classes were upstairs, and the elevator didn’t work at the time, she said.
“I hope they watch this and realize what they're doing is wrong and they're discriminating against people that have physical and mental disabilities that they need to just change their minds and say, ‘Hey, we're ... going about this the wrong way,’” Adam Linebarger said.
He isn’t a part of the class in the lawsuit because he’s 19 and graduated from homeschooling last year.
The lawsuit does mention two current students who tried to apply to Catholic schools, but only by their initials. One is an 8-year-old boy named Blake whose mother spoke with WWL-TV on condition of anonymity to protect her child’s identity. She said the Archdiocese wouldn’t accommodate his dyslexia.
“I've called every Catholic school and I've talked to people in the archdiocese, and they would be like, ‘Oh, well, call this one,’” she said. “I'm like, ‘I did that.’ ‘Call this one.’ ‘I did that.’"
She said the Archdiocese promised her a 'dyslexia school hub' at St. Christopher School in Metairie, but she said when she called that school, officials there said, “No, we don’t do that.”
Archdiocese spokeswoman Sarah McDonald declined to comment on pending litigation, but she said, "The Archdiocese of New Orleans remains committed to making Catholic education accessible to area families wishing to choose a Catholic education for their children."