The National Association of Evangelicals v. Joni Eareckson Tada

The National Association of Evangelicals v. Joni Eareckson Tada July 27, 2020

Thanks to twitter, I learned something today.

That’s right—the National Association of Evangelicals opposed the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Because that’s totally what Jesus’ relationship with disabled people looked like.) This made me curious as to why—what were their stated objections? I went looking.

I found this, in a 2018 Sojourners article:

William Bentley Ball, representing the Association of Christian Schools International, lobbied against ADA for two reasons: the cost of making schools accessible and concerns about government intrusion into religious institutions. “Religious exercise, within the meaning of the First Amendment will be directly involved if churches and religious schools are not expressly exempted from the terms of the ADA,” he wrote in a letter dated July 13, 1989, to the director of the Office of Policy Development at the White House.

Ball’s reasoning stated that religious institutions – including not only private schools but also churches and day cares – are “morally required (as a matter of clear and unconditional religious principle) to discriminate against carriers of AIDS where AIDS was incurred through immoral conduct.” Even though most of today’s U.S. churches wouldn’t agree with such arguments, the exemption still stands today.

Beyond those problematic arguments, Ball continued, arguing that there was no compelling state interest in religious organizations being accessible. “Nothing has been shown to indicate that there is a national necessity to apply the ADA Bill to churches, religious schools, and other ministries.” In essence, his logic declared that there was no good reason for Christian organizations to be accessible to people with disabilities.

While some religious institutions endorsed the ADA, the flawed legal opinions of Ball and other were heeded. Language suggested by Ball was added to the ADA. Churches could have advocated for Ball’s voice to represent Christian schools but not extend to churches, but they didn’t. Instead, Robert P. Dugan, director of the National Association of Evangelicals’ Office of Public Affairs, wrote a letter to the U.S. Senate in agreement with Ball’s arguments. Unlike the handful of Christian entities in favor of the ADA, Dugan’s evangelical organization represented “some 37,000 local congregations in forty-five denominations, with a total service constituency of fifteen million people.” On behalf of fifteen million members of my faith, Dugan argued against access to churches for me, my children, and other disabled people.

Whaaaat. Sorry, I’m stuck on the bit about there being a religious right to discriminate against people with AIDS. Because that’s totally how Jesus treated lepers. Totally. 

Look, I get that everyone sorts through religious texts and emphasizes some things while emphasizing (or questioning) others, but it’s important to bear in mind that evangelicals claim not to do this. They claim they’re taking everything the Bible is saying at face value, and accepting and applying it. I just can’t see that, given how often Jesus eats with prostitutes. And tax collectors. He went out of his way to have contact with those that society had rejected and deemed immoral.

Jesus would have eaten with people with AIDS.

Having read the above paragraphs, I wanted to read Dugan’s letter to the U.S. Senate. Remember, Dugan was the director of the National Association of Evangelicals’ Office of Public Affairs. I found it, because I am an internet wizard. (See page 113 of this document).

Dugan writes:

The goals of your bill, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1989, are laudable in seeking to accommodate the special needs of the handicapped and thus to help them realize their full capabilities. We commend your goals. The NAE has been active urging that the needs of the handicapped be met. At our March 1989 convention the NAE adopted a resolution entitled “Ministry To Persons With Disabilities.” A copy is enclosed.

However, some features of S. 933 pose very serious problems for our community. The application of the legislation to churches and religious ministries is unacceptable on constitutional grounds. Both the inevitable entanglement of regulation and the suppression of religious free exercise inherent in the substance of the regulation lead us to this conclusion.

Wait, what, now?

The NAE’s 1989 “Ministry To Persons With Disabilities” resolution looks fine. It includes this line: “Because of the model Jesus provided and the need that exists, we call upon our member churches and Christians everywhere to … remove physical and communication barriers that hinder access of disabled people to the worship services and to the recreational and social activities of the church.” But when the ADA proposed to require such accommodations, that was a step too far. 

Per Dugan:

Where charitable funds are privately donated for religious ministry to some particular kind of need, and believers have responded to a calling to serve that particular need (quite often on a sacrificial basis) there is no governmental warrant to force that ministry to a particular mode and expense of serving some other kind of need. For example, a charitable ministry to handicapped persons of one kind should not be forced t0 accommodate needy persons of some other kind; nor should a ministry to errant youth be forced to invest and divert charitable funds donated for that purpose into capital facilities for handicapped persons.

Note that Dugan cannot fathom that a ministry to errant youth might include errant youth who have disabilities. “Where charitable funds are privately donated for religious ministry to some particular kind of need,” he writes, “there is no governmental warrant to force that ministry to a particular mode and expense of serving some other kind of need.” Dugan does not seem to be aware that every group churches in his association might want to minister to—errant youth, veterans, widows, young mothers, addicts, ex-convicts—might include people who are disabled.

Dugan goes on:

A particular odious affront to persons both serving and giving sacrificially is the artificial classification of their private religious endeavor as a place of “public accommodation,” in defiance of past legal concepts of public accommodation as well as religious liberty rights.

Does Dugan not want every person, including those with disabilities, to be able to access churches and religious ministries? Last I looked, churches issue calls like “all are welcome.” They’re not member-only social clubs. They actively try to recruit and issue invitations.

Still another serious problem, pertinent to most charitable endeavors (particularly small ones), is the prospect of radical expansion of costs very often not warranted by the particular needs of anyone actually on the premises.

Has Dugan ever stopped to realize that if a church has no wheelchair ramp, people in wheelchairs will not attend, because they cannot attend? And again—churches recruit!

In the case of voluntary religious activity, in which the participants have a constitutional right to engage, free of burdens (if such are not called for by health or safety considerations), the burdens are impermissible.

My god. That NAE “Ministry To Persons With Disabilities” resolution genuinely isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. What a load of crock.

So, let me leave you with something else interesting.

In 1988, Joni Eareckson Tada was invited to serve on the National Council on Disability under Presidents Reagan and Bush, a council that authored the first draft of the Americans with Disabilities Acts (ADA).

Joni. Eareckson. Tada. 

Oh and you know what else?

Joni was the first woman honored by the National Association of Evangelicals as its “Layperson of the Year” in 1986. She has received numerous awards and honors including the American Academy of Achievement’s Golden Plate Award.

Individuals unfamiliar with the evangelical world may be a bit confused at this point. I grew up in an evangelical home, and that meant hearing about Joni Eareckson Tada quite a bit. In 1967, when she was a teenager, Joni broke her neck in a diving accident. She two long years in the hospital and in rehabilitation, and struggled with depression. Ultimately, she pointed to her faith as the thing got her through it—the thing that kept her going.

Joni went on to write books—including one that I read as a teen—and to become an evangelical speaker and icon. She learned to draw to her mouth and became an artist! She got married! She was an evangelical darling! I even saw her speak once, at my church.

Every evangelical of my generation was familiar with images like these:

The National Association of Evangelicals named her their “Layperson of the Year” in 1989, the first woman to ever win that designation. They loved her! Looking back now, hearing Joni’s story definitely had a positive impact on me. It normalized disabilities, and it meant that being able to live a full life as a disabled persons was something I heard affirmed in church.

But now, knowing that she literally helped author the ADA, which the NAE then did everything they could to neutralize and defang, it all feels slightly different. The NAE loved Joni—as long as she was saying things they wanted to hear. They used her story to argue for the sanctity of life and against what they argued was a culture of death on the Left. When she was saying that churches should be required to have wheelchair ramps for people like her—well, that was just too much. 

Just when Joni’s perspective and input should have been especially relevant—the most relevant—the NAE decided that her perspective did not matter at all.

Yesterday, Joni reflected on the signing of the ADA 30 years ago:

As a member of the National Council on Disability, I was thrilled to see the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act back in 1990. I remember sitting in my wheelchair on the White House lawn, watching President George H.W. Bush sign the ADA into law and thinking of all the possibilities for people like me.

She was literally there. I’m going to think of this every time I hear her name—of how evangelicals praised and elevated her only as long as she stayed on message, and sought to sabotage her efforts the moment she asked them to make real changes to accommodate people like her.

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