Court: Girl Scouts covered by anti-discrimination law

Hands engaged in sign language
Girl Scouts covered by Section 504

A federal appeals court ruled May 8 that the Girl Scouts are covered by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, distinguishing it from most other major discrimination statutes.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, the Civil Rights Act and multiple other federal anti-discrimination statutes categorically exempt private membership organizations. These exemptions, which include most religious organizations, sparked national debate in 2000, when the Supreme Court ruled that the Boy Scouts of America could bar gay scouts from membership.

Section 504, which pre-dated the ADA by nearly two decades, was the first federal anti-discrimination law pertaining to people with disabilities. The law, which is still heavily litigated, does not expressly exempt private membership organizations, provided they received federal financial assistance and are “principally engaged in the business of providing education, housing, social services, or parks and recreation.”

The U.S Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit found that the the plain text of Section 504 states that the Girl Scouts meet this criteria.

“We filed this case nearly three years ago and it is gratifying that we now have a definitive decision that the Girl Scouts cannot discriminate against its members with disabilities,” said Equip for Equality Attorney Barry Taylor said in a news release. “The Girl Scouts’ policy is discriminatory on its face, and we look forward to rectifying the injustice this policy caused our client.”

The plaintiff in the lawsuit is Megan Runnion, who is deaf. For six years, the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana provided her a sign language interpreter at her scout meetings.

At age 12, the organization stopped providing Runnion an interpreter. When her mother complained, the Girl Scouts allegedly retaliated by disbanding the troop.

Runnion, who is represented by Equip for Equality and the National Association of the Deaf, filed a lawsuit against the Girl Scouts in August 2012.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois found that the Girl Scouts were exempt from the law.

Now on appeal, the 7th Circuit heard arguments in March. The Department of Justice filed an amicus brief on behalf of the plaintiffs.

With the latest decision, the case now returns to the District Court, to hear Runnion’s discrimination complaint on the merits.

“The Girl Scouts’ refusal to provide interpreter services not only violates federal law, but also is contrary to the founding principles of the Girl Scouts,” NAD CEO and attorney Howard A. Rosenblum said in the news release. “Ironically, Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of Girl Scouts, herself became deaf later in life and she welcomed girls of all abilities at a time when they were excluded from many other activities.”

Equip for Equality and and Disability Rights Washington, publisher of  Rooted in Rights, are part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and members of the National Disability Rights Network.