OLR Research Report

December 8, 2006




By: Veronica Rose, Principal Analyst

You asked if the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires churches to be handicapped accessible.


The ADA does not apply to religious organizations and entities controlled by religious organizations. Thus, under the act, churches do not have to be handicapped accessible. (However, nonreligious entities that conduct their activities in church facilities may be subject to the act.)

Although the ADA does not apply to churches, some churches have adopted the act's accessibility standards for public accommodations. The National Organization on Disability publishes a handbook on voluntary measures taken by religious organizations to improve access for persons with disabilities. The handbook is entitled: That All May Worship: An Interfaith Welcome To People With Disabilities. Your constituent can get a copy of the handbook by writing to:

The National Organization on Disability

Religion and Disability Program

910 16th St.

N.W. Suite 600

Washington, D.C. 20006

The organization's telephone number is (202) 293-5960.


The ADA, which took effect on January 26, 1992, is a federal law aimed at providing “a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities” (42 USC 12101(b)(1)). It prohibits discrimination in several areas against people with disabilities. Title III states that:

No individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of a disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases (or leases to), or operates a place of public accommodation (42 USC 12182(a)).

The act requires places of public accommodation operated by private entities to be designed, constructed, and altered in compliance with its accessibility standards. The ADA applies to a wide range of facilities whose operations affect commerce. These include restaurants, bars, and other food serving establishments (42 USC 12181(7) and 28 CFR 36.104)). The ADA does not apply to (1) private clubs exempted from coverage under Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act; (2) religious organizations or entities controlled by such organizations; and (3) multifamily buildings, which are covered by the 1988 Federal Housing Administration Act (42 USC 12187 & 12204 et. seq.). The preamble to the ADA Title III regulation reads as follows:

The ADA's exemption of religious organizations and religious entities controlled by religious organizations is very broad, encompassing a wide variety of situations. Religious organizations and entities controlled by religious organizations have no obligations under the ADA. Even when a religious organization carries out activities that would otherwise make it a public accommodation, the religious organization is exempt from ADA coverage. Thus, if a church itself operates. . . a private school, or a diocesan school system, the operations of the . . . school or schools would not be subject to the ADA. . . The religious entity would not lose its exemption merely because the services provided were open to the general public. The test is whether the church or other religious organization operates the public accommodation, not which individuals receive the public accommodation's services.