After a years-long legal quest to gain immunity from state anti-discrimination laws, Chestnut Hill College will accept a Pa. Supreme Court denial and face a hearing over its alleged racist treatment of a black former student.
CHC President Sister Carol Jean Vale expressed the decision to not take the case further, to the U.S. Supreme Court, in an email sent to faculty members Tuesday morning. The message read:
“After much consideration, reflection, and prayer, we have decided to permit the PHRC matter to be remanded for discovery and a public hearing. Although we found strong legal precedent to support an appeal to the United States Supreme Court, it is our judgment, that a public hearing is best for all involved.
Thank you for your continued interest in this matter and your patience as we sought clarification from the Courts concerning the proper jurisdiction for the case to be heard. I recognize this has been a very difficult and painful time for us all and I deeply regret this has been true. Please know that no decisions about this case were made without thorough research and reflection as we weighed each and every option available to us. This will continue to be our practice as we move forward.”
The former student, Allan-Michael Meads, was expelled in 2012 after the school accused him of stealing proceeds from a production of “A Raisin in the Sun.” He challenged his expulsion through the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC), which in 2015 released a finding of probable cause and charged CHC with discrimination. The finding cited several incidences in which white students were given more lenient punishments for similar or lesser allegations.
Rather than face a hearing on the discrimination charge, Chestnut Hill College filed a lawsuit. The school’s argument was that as a private religious institution (CHC is Catholic but receives some state funding) it has a First Amendment right to discipline students as it sees fit. Two lower courts ruled against CHC, saying exclusions for parochial high schools didn’t count for universities because they are “public accommodations” and offer an environment for free thinking different from secondary schools. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court declined to hear the case last month.
The PHRC hearing will be a public meeting similar to a trial at which both Meads and Chestnut Hill College will voice their arguments. If found to have discriminated, CHC could be on the hook for punishments that include repayment of Meads’ tuition and an equivalent of three years’ salary. It could also be forced to hold diversity training for all senior staff members.
The lengthy legal battle has roiled faculty members and local politicians, and alienated black alumni, many of whom described Chestnut Hill College’s atmosphere for black students as problematic.