Movie theaters, department stores, and other public buildings across the nation this month are erecting ramps, rearranging furniture, and installing flashing alarm lights. The changes represent efforts to make public structures accessible to the disabled, and thereby comply with the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which went into effect on January 26. The new law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical and mental disabilities in public accommodations, state and local government services, private and public transportation, private-sector employment, and telecommunications services.

As most major social institutions race to remodel, however, churches and other religious organizations remain unaffected, exempt from most provisions of the law. Throughout debate over the legislation, church/state experts raised constitutional concerns that by including religious institutions in the definition of places of “public accommodation,” Congress would open churches to a host of intrusive federal regulations and government entanglement (CT, Oct. 8, 1990, p. 71).

Language in the final version of the bill alleviated those concerns, and according to Baptist Joint Committee for Public Affairs (BJC) counsel J. Brent Walker, federal regulations released this fall further clarified the situation. For example, Walker says, those rules make it clear that churches are completely exempt from having to make their public facilities physically accessible to the disabled. A church does not become a place of public accommodation if it runs other public ministries such as a day-care center or a food bank. And the Department of Transportation has stipulated that church buses or shuttle services do not have to comply with the public ...

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