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Publications | November 7, 2016
2 minute read

What an en-tangled web we weave: MSC grants MOAA to consider the scope of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine

In Winkler v Marist Fathers of Detroit, Inc, No. 152889, the Michigan Supreme Court granted mini-oral argument on whether a court entangles itself in religious doctrine by examining a parochial school’s basis for denying admission.  Bettina Winkler had sought admission to Notre Dame Preparatory High School after receiving repeated assurances that she would be guaranteed admission to the high school if she enrolled in Notre Dame Marist Academy for seventh and eighth grade.  Despite these assurances, however, Notre Dame Preparatory High School did not grant Winkler admission.  Only two months later, Winkler was diagnosed with learning disabilities.  She subsequently filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination under the Persons With Disabilities Civil Rights Act (“PWDCRA”), claiming that Notre Dame relied upon her learning disability as a justification for denying her admission to the high school.

The Court of Appeals held that Dlaikan v Roodbeen, 206 Mich App 591, 594 (1994), applied, and thus, the court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over the claim pursuant to the protections of the First Amendment.  In Dlaikan, the Court of Appeals held that the plaintiff’s claims regarding admission to a parochial school were so entangled in questions of religious doctrine that the courts lacked jurisdiction to hear them.  In this case, as in Dlaikan, Winkler’s claim involved the refusal to provide the very services for which the organization enjoys First Amendment protection.   Because Dlaikan applied, the Court of Appeals also declined to address whether the PWDCRA applied to religious institutions.

In granting mini-oral argument, the Court asked the parties to address three questions:

(1) whether the doctrine of ecclesiastical abstention involves a question of a court’s subject matter jurisdiction over a claim;

(2) whether the Court of Appeals correctly concluded that consideration of Winkler’s challenge to Notre Dame’s admission decision would have impermissibly entangled the trial court in questions of religious doctrine or ecclesiastical polity; and

(3) whether this Court should overrule Dlaikan, and if so, on what basis.