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Chestnut Hill College petitioned to take its battle against Pennsylvania discrimination laws the distance, and it’s getting financial help from a national organization whose membership includes Catholic universities like Villanova and Saint Joseph’s.
Monday, Chestnut Hill College appealed to the Supreme Court the rulings of two lower courts that found Pennsylvania discrimination laws apply to the school. The case stems from the 2012 expulsion of black student Allan-Michael Meads for alleged theft. Meads, who denies stealing money, filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC), which stated in a probable cause filing the school violated the Pennsylvania Fair Educational Opportunities Act and “excessively punished and expelled him because of his race.” Chestnut Hill College (CHC) is arguing state discrimination laws enforced by the PHRC do not apply to it because it’s a Catholic institution. The Supreme Court accepts fewer than 5 percent of appeals and will likely take several weeks to respond.
CHC’s stance has drawn condemnation from City Council and Mayor Jim Kenney and contributed to the exodus of many faculty members, who have expressed displeasure with the court case and its impact on the school’s bottom line. Chestnut Hill College was staring down a $2 million budget shortfall last summer.
But CHC is getting financial help. In an email sent Tuesday to college leadership, faculty and staff, President Sister Carol Jean Vale wrote that the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities had “absorbed the cost to have First Amendment lawyers…review and edit our petition before it was submitted.”
The email included a statement from the president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, Michael Galligan-Stierle. He was quoted saying as the court’s decision “demonstrated a serious lack of understanding about the essential nature and mission of Catholic institutions of higher education.
“Catholic higher education firmly rejects discrimination – which is against the teachings of the Church – in all of its forms,” Galligan-Stierle continued. “This case is about holding students accountable under the values that the college stands for – honesty, integrity, and personal responsibility – which are part of Chestnut Hill’s Catholic identity. The decision of the Commonwealth Court points to a core misunderstanding of that identity and of Catholic educational institutions’ relationship to the Catholic Church. ACCU is proud to affirm its support for the college as it rebuts the court’s decision.”
The Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities bills itself as having “the collective voice of U.S. Catholic Higher Education.” Most every major Catholic university is a member, including Saint Joseph’s, Villanova and Duquesne, as well as Georgetown and Boston College.
Both Galligan-Stierle and Vale declined comment through spokespersons.
Danielle Steel, counsel for CHC in this case, echoed the same concerns of Galligan-Stierle’s statement. She said the Commonwealth Court’s decision “left the door open for the College to revisit its interpretation of the nature of Catholic colleges and universities as distinctly private.”
Last year, Supreme Court Justice Kevin Dougherty, brother of influential union boss John Dougherty, gave Chestnut Hill College’s commencement address. His son, Sean, graduated from CHC in 2016.
Bruce Ledewitz, a Duquesne law professor and expert on the Pennsylvania Constitution, said Dougherty’s ties to Chestnut Hill College are not relevant.
“Those are not conflicts,” Ledewitz said. “Ideological sympathy is not a conflict.”
He said there was no Pennsylvania precedent for a religious institution of higher ed to not be considered a “public accommodation.” Public accommodations are subject to discrimination laws.
Last fall, Council passed a resolution against Chestnut Hill College, expressing concerns the courts siding with Chestnut Hill College would set a dangerous precedent for private and religious institutions in Pennsylvania. Kenney commended Council on its decision.
Many black alumni have spoken out against the culture at Chestnut Hill College. For a deeper look at their grievances, the case and the incident involving Meads, see our previous coverage.