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The fundamental argument over the past few weeks has been whether government has a right to overrule the practice and beliefs of religious groups. As we know, the Catholic Church has been allowed to restrict access to contraception for a long while. Even though a majority of women use birth control, the Church has refused to bend to popular will. Government sought to step in to provide what would seem to most as commonplace and unspectacular. Instead, an influential institution decided to stir up another skirmish in the culture wars.

If we are to be fair, religious groups and places of worship have long been given sufficient leeway. The Founding Fathers wished for a government that, as historian Ron Chernow put it, “passively tolerated” organized religion instead of directly intervening in its affairs. This decision was itself a reaction to the power, exclusivity, and influence of the state Church of England. The Anglican church long held an especially limited tolerance for other religious groups. Those who formed the United State of America felt a lasting anxiety, due to a peculiarly British dislike of Catholicism, which was often contemptuously condemned as “Popery.”  

Returning to where we began, beyond reproductive rights or deep seeded prejudices, faith groups have been consistently allowed to discriminate. In particular, this includes one overlooked segment of the population: people with disabilities. Mark I. Pinsky’s recent book, Amazing Gifts: Stories of Faith, Disability, and Inclusion addresses the problem. “…Small or medium-sized congregations, which are the overwhelming majority of houses of worship in the United States, are effectively exempt from provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act.” Large gatherings, which include megachurches, are required to fully accommodate the disabled. Most others, however, are not required to make sufficient arrangements and, accordingly, they do not.

This compromise measure in the ADA act has enabled houses of worship to consistently overlook the needs of those with limitations. The act has been the law of the land since 1990, but is long overdo for an overhaul to keep it up to date. Legislation aside, the attitudes of congregations are regularly the primary stumbling blocks. At times, even the mildest of changes has been greeted with open hostility and contempt. Fearful of reform in any form, reasonable requests to accommodate the disabled are often opposed and blocked.

My own Quaker Meeting has recently wrestled with making changes to the main Worship room, a historic, but acoustically problematic space. Friends with hearing problems have long asked that something be done so that they might be able to hear each First Day Worship’s vocal ministry. I feel certain that making a welcoming space for people with disabilities could grow the Meeting. But I have had to recently concede that people can be fixated upon their own dislikes enough that they do not see the greater gain beyond. A few modifications here and there might very well provide the renewed vibrancy and energy that many Friends have long desired.

Still, one cannot overlook one looming impediment: money. Cost alone can be exceedingly prohibitive. Membership among many faith groups is in decline. Often, congregations lose a member for each one they gain. Membership rolls reflect this phenomenon. Even with a sufficient number of frequent attenders and members, often only a small minority contribute money. With limited resources, 20% of the congregation strains to support the demands and needs of the other 80%.

If houses of worship are financially unable to make these needed reforms, then other avenues need to be considered. Soliciting money makes many people queasy, but it may be unavoidable. Depending upon charity alone reminds me of an argument from another time. Herbert Hoover, himself a Quaker, believed that churches, charities, businesses, and relatives ought to aid those out of work. His perspective was that of strict government non-intervention. Franklin Roosevelt, as we know, had a very different approach. The New Deal established a precedent that government must intercede where the private sector fails.

Should houses of worship refuse to make a space for disabled citizens, who or what will step in to ensure that they can? Though the Catholic Church asserts a degree of influence because of its size, wealth, and historic importance, it does not dominate American society. This country is home to multiple faiths, multiple cultural traditions, and very diverse houses of worship. Would it be feasible to expect government to subsidize the very means by which disabled people can be fully integrated into faith communities? Many have been waiting for years and may be waiting much longer.

Them that's got shall get
Them that's not shall lose
So the Bible said and it still is news
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that's got his own
That's got his own

Yes, the strong gets more
While the weak ones fade
Empty pockets don't ever make the grade
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that's got his own
That's got his own

-Billie Holiday

Originally posted to cabaretic on Mon Feb 27, 2012 at 07:54 AM PST.

Also republished by Street Prophets and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (28+ / 0-)

    I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I lead you in, some one else would lead you out. - Eugene Debs.

    by cabaretic on Mon Feb 27, 2012 at 07:54:35 AM PST

  •  nice diary (18+ / 0-)

    and a HUGE issue for small churches with aging congregations. It is painful to watch faithful, elderly members drag themselves up steep staircases or try to squeeze into tight bathroom spaces.

    Speaking from experience as a Methodist pastor of two, small rural churches, the need is acknowledged and there are good faith efforts to be as accomodating and accessible as possible. But old buildings and small budgets preclude many of the available fixes.

    My smaller church is currently struggling mightily with this issue, and have proven themselves unwilling to take the only logical step: move out of their current space and lease space from another, more accessible, little used church. We are deeply attached to the physical places of our faith practice, perhaps to our ultimate undoing.

    Nobody is normal because everyone is different- my eight year old daughter

    by left rev on Mon Feb 27, 2012 at 08:14:26 AM PST

    •  I've seen the same thing in my small (14+ / 0-)

      church. Many of our elderly and a few of our wheelchair bound members--my daughter included struggled with accessibility to the church building. Sunday school classes for those who couldn't get up and down the stairs were moved to the sanctuary. Since my daughter was the youngest person in a wheelchair and the youngsters classes were all downstairs she wasn't impacted too much by the situation.

      The changes to ADA more or less grandfathered older standing buildings and exempt them from making ADA accommodations--Unless they decided to renovate or add on to the standing building. That's how they got around it.

      Most churches in my area have sincerely tried to meet the needs of their disabled members. The churches bear the cost of the modifications, I'm not aware of any funding available to make modifications. At one there were some kind of low interest loans through the small business administration for modifications; however with all the cuts to funding I sincerely doubt that funding has survived.

    •  left rev: we've learnt (13+ / 0-)

      (accidentally, nearly) to rely on subsections of our faith communities.

      If your church sponsors a Scout troop, could one potential Eagle project be building a wheelchair ramp at one entry?

      If your church has more than one restroom, could one be modified to allow for mobility-impaired parishioners' use?

      Putting up handicap-parking signage (and painting the parking lot accordingly) was a major achievement that started a trend in service projects in our Texas region ... it grew out of a tiny church in an ancient fieldstone building in a really small town... the Scouts, FFA and 4-H club all ended up helping with the teardown of an old fieldstone separate garage from the parsonage property.

      The materials were re-homed at the church as an addition, sheltering about a 6x12 space with an ADA-compliant single restroom -- it even has a baby-changing table! -- and a weather-proofed entrance with a ramp and handrail. The costs were well below $500, almost all of which went to pay for the new plumbing and electrical parts. It doesn't even look added-on. It just looks like an enclosed porch ...

      LBJ & Lady Bird, Sully Sullenberger, Molly Ivins, Barbara Jordan, Ann Richards, Drew Brees: Texas is No Bush League! -7.50,-5.59

      by BlackSheep1 on Mon Feb 27, 2012 at 12:59:53 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  What a great solution! (5+ / 0-)

        Its wonderful to see a small church looking for creative approaches. I hope we can come up with something like that. We have two, gendered, VERY SMALL restrooms, in the basement, sharing space with a water heater and a load bearing wall. Completely ridiculous. But when the church was built (125 years ago), I guess no one was expecting a congregation composed predominantly of mobiltiy impaired seventy and eighty year olds. We have a ramp that gets you into the landing, but the bathrooms are a steep, narrow staircase down, and the sanctuary is a steep narrow staircase up. No office space. No classroom space. No nursery. And a lovely balcony that hardly anyone can get up to anymore. We have no parking lot, but we put out signage on Sunday mornings to designate handicap parking.

        It's crazy. And there's a mostly unused, all one level Catholic Church that we could rent on Sundays. But they WILL. NOT. LEAVE. THEIR. SPACE. It would surprise me, and take divine intervention, if this beautiful little congregation survived for another decade.

        Nobody is normal because everyone is different- my eight year old daughter

        by left rev on Mon Feb 27, 2012 at 02:41:55 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  I heard of one old Southern Baptist church (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Milou, Alice in Florida

      in a small town in Kentucky that made itself wheelchair accessible due to a tragic accident.  

      A family who belonged to that church were poor yet devout.  One day, the father and his six year old son were in a terrible car accident that killed the father and left his son paralyzed.  When the pastor went to visit the boy in the hospital all he talked about was how much he missed going to church.  The pastor had a big problem--his church building was one of those old Southern places with the Ionic columns on top of a big, wide set of steps.  The whole congregation was rooting for this child so when the pastor told a couple of members who were big money building contractors they told him they'd take care of it.  They made the place wheelchair-accessible, free of charge.  (Okay, so they deducted it from their taxes, but who's quibbling?)

      Unfortunately, charity often needs a familiar face.

      Never meddle in the affairs of cats, for they are subtle and will piss on your computer.--Bruce Graham

      by Ice Blue on Tue Feb 28, 2012 at 05:53:25 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  There are some churches that do provide (11+ / 0-)

    ASL services for the deaf. However, as an oral deaf person, I'm at a disadvantage because I don't know ASL, and I need services like live captioning to understand the church session. I'm not the only one facing problems with this.

    •  My larger church (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      commonmass, jabney, Ice Blue

      has moved to projection for our services. I'll bet we could figure out a way to provide captioning, if it became an issue.

      We do have hearing assist devices for our older, hard of hearing folks, but most refuse to use them because they thinki they're ugly and bulky. They're kind of right, too. I wish we could have gotten a more compact, streamlined version, but it was out of our budget.

      Nobody is normal because everyone is different- my eight year old daughter

      by left rev on Mon Feb 27, 2012 at 02:44:07 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  The ELCA Lutheran Church is committed to (17+ / 0-)

    complying with ADA when its churches can possibly do so. It's not always easy or popular to do so. Trust me, I'm sure there was some some squabbling to my pastor when I first started showing up with my service dog (which was not an innocuous looking golden retriever). But I had spoken to my pastor ahead of time, and his response was simply, "we comply with ADA. That's what Jesus would expect, of course."

    We are not a big or wealthy parish.  Building ramps is not so expensive, nor is taking down the dividers between stalls, removing a toilet and making a 2-toilet restroom a 1- toilet ADA compliant restroom, or setting aside front rows for parishioners who need them to hear better or for easier/safer access during communion, etc.   But these these things do take some church funds and they're often not popular.

    So they take leadership. As my pastor had said,  Jesus spent much of his time healing the sick, wouldn't he want us to accommodate those with disabilities?

    Clearly, he had said these words before, and not to someone who was asking to be accomodated under ADA.


    © grover

    So if you get hit by a bus tonight, would you be satisfied with how you spent today, your last day on earth? Live like tomorrow is never guaranteed, because it's not. -- Me.

    by grover on Mon Feb 27, 2012 at 10:48:15 AM PST

  •  As a person who has worked most of my (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jabney, Ice Blue, Milou, left rev

    career as a sacred musician, I have sat on lots of committees, and attended any number of parish council/vestry meetings. In my experience, even in the smaller parishes I have served, accessibility has been a priority. I do not think I have ever served a parish that was not wheelchair accessible, or made reasonable accommodations for the hearing impaired. Perhaps that is unusual, my experience.

    Some municipalities DO regulate accessibility of churches. I learned this when working at a church in Houston, Texas. A smallish but very wealthy parish, they undertook adapting for wheelchair access and other things when they did some other renovations because the city required it.

    Santorum: Man on Dog; Romney: Dog on Car. Ren and Stimpy: Dog on Cat

    by commonmass on Mon Feb 27, 2012 at 03:53:15 PM PST

  •  declining memberships make significant (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    charliehall2, jabney, Ice Blue, left rev

    alterations in buildings economically unfeasible while memberships decline in part due to people with disabilities not feeling welcome.  It appears congregations either face an insolvable problem or a remarkable opportunity depending upon each congregation's attitude  

    •  You can't spend money you don't have (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      jabney, donaurora, left rev

      and a lot of old buildings are just plain hostile to people with disabilities.

      •  having done this myself in the past (0+ / 0-)

        I would hazard a guess that many congregations harbor a good many amateur carpenters and either have a hardware store owner or two in their midst or can prevail upon local merchants for donations of materials so a chair ramp is not the budget breaker it might otherwise appear to be or painting a handicapped area in the parking lot is not as expensive as it would be with a private contractor

  •  Jewish Federation in New York (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jabney, Ice Blue, left rev

    just handed out inclusion awards:

    I belong to one of the Orthodox synagogues, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, and just happened to pray tonight at another, the Lincoln Square Synagogue. Not incidentally, both have massive debts from building programs that included inclusiveness as a major consideration.

  •  Wrestling with accessibility discriminination (0+ / 0-)

    for all kind of disabilities in faith communities is  difficult due to lack of financial resources.  
    I think each place of worship needs to address this a priority for their congregation.
    I don't think it's the government's role to mandate how private places of worship meet the need of their congregation.
     I do think that federal loans to faith based institutions that are earmarked to address accessibility needs for people with disabilities would go a long way in address this discrimination.
    Agree that negative attitudes and ignorance regarding all kinds of disabilities keeps this issue off the radar screen for many faith based institutions, never mind putting it on the priority list.

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