Synopsis: 7th Circuit Court of Appeals rules Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana subject to federal disability discrimination law under Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
The federal lawsuit was filed on August 2, 2012, by Megan Runnion, who is deaf and was 12 years old at the time. Megan was seeking to secure an American Sign Language interpreter for meetings of her Girl Scout troop.
The Girl Scouts of the United States of America (GSUSA) is a youth organization for girls in the United States and American girls living abroad. Founded by Juliette Gordon Low in 1912, it was organized after Low met Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of Scouting, in 1911. The GSUSA is a member of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS). It accepts girls from any background.
For the six years that Megan was involved with her Girl Scout troop, the Girl Scouts provided a sign language interpreter for troop meetings and outings. Megan's mother renewed the request for the interpreter in 2011, but the Girl Scouts denied her request. Rather than providing the requested interpreter services, Megan's troop was disbanded.
The lawsuit was dismissed on October 26, 2012, when the Girl Scouts argued that the organization was not covered under the Rehabilitation Act. But on Friday, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the Northern District of Illinois' decision and found that private membership organizations that receive federal funds, such as the Girl Scouts, are covered by federal disability discrimination law.
According to Steven P. Blonder, lead counsel in the case and a principal at Chicago-based law firm Much Shelist (which is handling the case on a pro bono basis) the decision confirms that private membership organizations, such as the Girl Scouts, are included in the anti-discrimination provisions of the Rehabilitation Act, regardless of whether professionals or volunteers are playing key roles. It also defines what it means to be principally engaged in social service or educational programs.
"The opinion confirms that private organizations that receive federal funding are prohibited from discriminating against people with disabilities," said Blonder. "We are pleased that the Seventh Circuit has confirmed this important principle and we can now focus on the underlying discrimination that our client experienced."
"Megan was heartbroken that she could no longer participate in Girl Scouts," said Edie Runnion, Megan's mother. "We are thrilled that Megan's case can finally go forward and set a precedent for other children who have disabilities and want to stay active in scouting and other similar organizations."
"We filed this case nearly three years ago and it is gratifying that we now have a definitive decision that the Girl Scouts cannot discriminate against its members with disabilities," said Barry Taylor, Vice President of Civil Rights and Systemic Advocacy at Equip for Equality and co-counsel for Megan. "The Girl Scouts' policy is discriminatory on its face, and we look forward to rectifying the injustice this policy caused our client." Equip for Equality attorneys Laura Miller, Amanda Antholt and Rachel Arfa are also representing Megan.
"The Girl Scouts' refusal to provide interpreter services not only violates federal law, but also is contrary to the founding principles of the Girl Scouts," said Howard A. Rosenblum, an attorney and the Chief Executive Officer of the National Association of the Deaf, which is serving as co-counsel. "Ironically, Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of Girl Scouts, herself became deaf later in life and she welcomed girls of all abilities at a time when they were excluded from many other activities." Marc Charmatz and Debra Patkin are the attorneys at NAD representing Megan.
The United States Department of Justice, which interprets and enforces Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, filed a brief with the Seventh Circuit supporting Megan's argument that the Girl Scouts is covered by federal disability anti-discrimination law.
U.S Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
Case No. 14-1729
Runnion v. Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana
A copy of the Seventh Circuit's decision and other documents related to the case can be found at www.equipforequality.org