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On the ADA’s 33rd anniversary, let’s remember disability rights are a state/church issue

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ADA 33rd birthday July 16, 2023
Credit | ADA National Network (

The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law on July 26, 1990. While 2023 marks 33 years since this landmark legislation was passed, disability rights have not come as far as the ADA’s proponents surely hoped.

The theocratic Christian nationalist ideology and rhetoric that led to Roe v. Wade being overturned is the same ideology that continues to play a part in the oppression of disabled Americans and the stagnant state of disability rights. All secular Americans should be concerned with inadequate and threatened disability rights as an indication of the continued expansion of Christian nationalism and its assault on bodily autonomy as part of its anti-state/church separation agenda.

If you care about disability rights, then you care about the separation between state and church.

Outdated and patronizing religious views continue to harm disabled Americans

Christianity is the primary foundation for the often dismissive and infantilizing views that many in the United States, including politicians and judges, hold toward disabled individuals. Christianity and the bible preach the views that disability is simultaneously a punishment from God — a way for God to demonstrate his “power” — yet also a sign of chastity and purity. Disabled people are somehow more pious than the nondisabled; they are charity cases lacking sexual, or even romantic, desires, and they serve as a means through which nondisabled people can grow morally and spiritually by taking on the burden of befriending or caring for a disabled person. These outdated, offensive and patently inaccurate stereotypes of disabled people persist and are perpetuated by Christian nationalists.

The Christian nationalist assault on bodily autonomy 

Christian nationalist ideology supports a restrictive and discriminatory view of bodily autonomy. Bodily autonomy is the simple concept that an individual has the right to decide what does or does not happen to their body. In the Christian nationalist view, bodily autonomy is subject to debate, compromise and can even be taken away any time it conflicts with their alt-right Christian beliefs. This frightening and dehumanizing ideology negatively impacts all Americans, but it especially impacts marginalized communities like those with disabilities and LGBTQ-plus Americans.

FFRF supports anti-discrimination laws and ending religious exemptions

The Freedom From Religion Foundation works to support anti-discrimination laws that protect disabled Americans. Part of protecting disability rights is ending exemptions for religious employers. Under current law, religious employers have the privilege of being exempt from basic anti-discrimination laws. Unfortunately, in the last decade religious organizations have begun to push the boundary of these exemptions in an attempt to expand their ability to legally discriminate against employees.

Furthermore, under current law, religious entities, such as houses of worship, Catholic-owned hospitals and private religious schools, are exempt from Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Title III of the ADA addresses disability-based discrimination, and requires places of public accommodation to ensure disabled individuals have access to goods and services, make reasonable policy modifications, and communicate effectively with individuals who have vision, hearing, or speech-related disabilities. Since religious entities are exempt from Title III of the ADA, this means they are allowed to discriminate against disabled individuals for no other reason than their religious nature.

FFRF works to fight religious exemptions because religious entities should not be given an open license to discriminate. For instance, in 2020, FFRF filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in the case Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey-Berru arguing that the court should not expand a legal exemption that would potentially allow religious organizations to fire employees for discriminatory reasons, such as disability status, simply by labeling the employee a “minister.”

On this anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, let us celebrate the progress that disability rights advocates have made socially and legally in the past 33 years. Now, we must work not only to preserve the victories already won, but to make even greater progress by recognizing that Christian nationalism and the erosion of the wall between state and church is a threat to disability rights. Christian nationalism is being used to halt and reverse progress. The fight for a society that views disabled people as full, competent, worthwhile human beings deserving of bodily autonomy and other basic human rights is now more important than ever.

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