Update, 12:30 p.m.
Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court ruled this morning state anti-discrimination laws apply to Chestnut Hill College, bringing the school one step closer to having to face a hearing for a charge of racism against a former black student.
Chestnut Hill College had been arguing that it was a distinctly private institution and not bound by the laws the same way public universities are. The case arose after the college expelled black student Allan-Michael Meads for allegedly stealing funds from a production of “A Raisin In the Sun” in 2012. Meads, faculty and students involved with the play deny he stole.
After his expulsion, Meads filed a discrimination complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, which charged the college with discrimination in a 2015 finding of probable cause. The PHRC found the school had levied much more lenient punishments for white students for comparable or more severe actions.
The next step would have been a hearing, but Chestnut Hill College filed a lawsuit, claiming it was exempt from the PHRC’s anti-discrimination laws.
The Commonwealth Court did not agree. In the ruling, the judges said colleges and universities are “expressly enumerated” as public accommodations in Pennsylvania and that lawyers for Chestnut Hill College (CHC) provided no evidence to differentiate itself.
CHC’s main argument in front of the Commonwealth Court relied on a ruling that a Catholic Philadelphia high school had been labeled a distinctly private entity and didn’t have to follow the anti-discrimination laws. But the judges cited a Supreme Court ruling, illustrating fundamental differences between religious high schools and colleges essentially because, unlike grade schools and high schools, colleges offered an environment for free-thinking.
The Commonwealth Court instructed the case go back to the PHRC for the scheduled hearing. But CHC’s lawyers could appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Danielle Banks, the lead lawyer representing CHC, said no decision had been made about whether the college would appeal.
“Chestnut Hill College is disappointed,” she said. “The college sought clarification of existing law and while the college doesn’t agree with the court’s reasoning, we respect the opinion.”
Counsel for the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission could not be reached.
The years-long saga has created a divide between CHC and its alumni of color, as well as between city leaders. Mayor Jim Kenney has spoken out against CHC, and City Council passed a resolution last fall requesting the school drop its challenge over discrimination laws.
“We’re not monolithic and I know a lot of us that have had wonderful experiences and go back,” Jenn Wilmot, a 2006 graduate, told Billy Penn last fall. “But there’s a strong contingency of us that say, ‘hey, there’s some problems.’ There were some serious problems at this school and we’re trying to figure out what the college is going to do about it.”