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Wazeerud-Din v. Goodwill Home and Missions

September 29, 1999

MIKAL WAZEERUD-DIN, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
THE GOODWILL HOME AND MISSIONS, INC. AND KENNETH THOMAS, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.



Before Judges Skillman, P.G. Levy and Lesemann.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Skillman, J.A.D.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued December 7, 1998

On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Essex County.

The question presented by this appeal is whether the Discipleship Program conducted by defendant Goodwill Home and Missions, Inc. (Goodwill Missions), which seeks to free participants from drug addiction and other addictive behavior primarily by instruction in the Christian religion and attendance at Christian devotional services, is a "place of public accommodation" subject to the provisions of the Law Against Discrimination (LAD), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -42.

Goodwill Missions is a religious society which engages in Christian evangelical teaching and provides assistance to needy persons. It operates social service programs which provide meals and shelter to needy men; recreational and educational opportunities to deprived children; food to residents of low income housing projects; health services; and gifts to poor children at Christmas time. Assistance is made available under these programs without regard for the religious affiliation or views of the recipients.

The particular Goodwill Missions program involved in this appeal, the Discipleship Program, is a nine-month residential program that provides participants with intensive religious instruction designed to free them from addictive life patterns. The essential premise of the program, as described by the Pastor of Goodwill Missions, is that "addiction is an outward manifestation of inward sin" and consequently the "chains of addiction can be broken" by "acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord of one's living." The core of the program is religious instruction, which includes Bible classes four days per week and supervised individual Bible study five days per week, and attendance at religious services, which includes at least six morning and four evening devotional services per week. It also includes non-religious educational instruction, such as reading, elementary mathematics and computer skills, and vocational training. The program does not involve any form of medical treatment. It has 90 to 100 participants at any one time.

Because the essential premise of the Discipleship Program, as described by the Goodwill Missions Pastor, is that participants can free themselves from addiction by "turning to Jesus Christ as their personal savior, redeemer and Lord who breaks the power of sin," Goodwill Missions admits into the program only persons who are "open to acceptance of the lordship of Jesus Christ." The Pastor indicated that one of the reasons for this restriction is that the participants "live, learn and work together and depend upon mutual support." Consequently, "[a]n individual who is unwilling to accept the principles of the program can be disruptive to the other residents in the Discipleship Program and can negatively affect their ability to free themselves of addiction." Non-Christians are admitted only if they are "open to considering the claims of Christ." Since 1990, 372 of the men entering the program have identified themselves as Christian, 51 as Muslim, 5 as Jewish and 302 as having no affiliation.

Plaintiff Mikal Wazeerud-Din is a Muslim. Upon his discharge from Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital, plaintiff was driven to Goodwill Missions, where he was interviewed by the Coordinator of Men's Ministries, defendant Kenneth Thomas. According to plaintiff, he was told at this interview that his "religion would be in conflict with the [Discipleship] program." However, Thomas stated that plaintiff's application was rejected because he did not express a sincere willingness to consider the teachings of Jesus Christ or to abide by the Discipleship Program's rules and guidelines.

Plaintiff subsequently filed a complaint in the Chancery Division which alleged that Goodwill Missions is a "place of public accommodation" subject to the provisions of the LAD and that it had discriminated against him on the basis of religion or creed by denying his application for admission into the Discipleship Program. The complaint named both Goodwill Missions and Thomas as defendants. Plaintiff sought an order compelling defendants to admit him into the Discipleship Program as well as compensatory and punitive damages. The trial court denied plaintiff's application for a preliminary injunction, which we affirmed in an unreported opinion. Wazeerud-Din v. Goodwill Home & Missions, Inc., No. A-1995-96T1F (May 8, 1997).

After the completion of discovery, the parties filed cross motions for summary judgment. The trial court concluded that the Discipleship Program is not subject to the LAD because: (1) it is a religious program which is not covered by the basic definition of a "place of public accommodation"; (2) it is expressly excluded from the definition of a "place of public accommodation" as an "educational facility operated or maintained by a bona fide religious or sectarian institution;" and (3) it is also expressly excluded from the definition as an "institution ... which is in its nature distinctly private." Since the court concluded that the Discipleship Program is not a place of public accommodation under the LAD, it did not reach defendants' alternative argument that subjecting Goodwill Missions' admissions practices to government regulation would violate its First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion and freedom of association.

The LAD provides that "[a]ll persons shall have the opportunity ... to obtain all the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of any place of public accommodation, ... without discrimination because of ... creed...." N.J.S.A. 10:5-4. The LAD also provides that "[i]t shall be ... an unlawful discrimination ... [f]or any owner ... of any place of public accommodation directly or indirectly to refuse, withhold from or deny to any person any of the accommodations, advantages, facilities or privileges thereof, ... on account of the ... creed ... of such person...." N.J.S.A. 10:5-12(f)(1). The definitional section of the LAD states that "'[a] place of public accommodation' shall include, but not be limited to" the public accommodations specifically set forth therein. N.J.S.A. 10:5-5(l). It further provides that "[n]othing herein contained shall be construed to include or to apply to any institution, bona fide club, or place of accommodation, which is in its nature distinctly private; nor shall anything herein contained apply to any educational facility operated or maintained by a bona fide religious or sectarian institution...." Ibid.

We conclude that the Discipleship Program is not covered by the basic definition of a "place of public accommodation" under the LAD because it is a religious program. We also conclude that the Discipleship Program is excepted from the definition of "place of public accommodation" because it is an "educational facility operated or maintained by a bona fide religious or sectarian institution." Since the dismissal of plaintiff's complaint may be affirmed on either of these alternative grounds, there is no need to address defendants' additional arguments that the Discipleship Program "is in its nature distinctly private" and that an interpretation of the LAD which required plaintiff's admission into the Discipleship Program would violate Goodwill Missions' First Amendment rights of free exercise of religion and freedom of association.

The LAD defines a "place of public accommodation" by illustration; it states that the places subject to the law shall include, but not be limited to: any tavern, roadhouse, hotel, motel, trailer camp, summer camp, day camp, or resort camp, whether for entertainment of transient guests or accommodation of those seeking health, recreation or rest; any producer, manufacturer, wholesaler, distributor, retail shop, store, establishment, or concession dealing with goods or services of any kind; any restaurant, eating house, or place where food is sold for consumption on the premises; any place maintained for the sale of ice cream, ice and fruit preparations or their derivatives, soda water or confections, or where any beverages of any kind are retailed for consumption on the premises; any garage, any public conveyance operated on land or water, or in the air, any stations and terminals thereof; any bathhouse, boardwalk, or seashore accommodation; any auditorium, meeting place, or hall; any theatre, motion-picture house, music hall, roof garden, skating rink, swimming pool, amusement and recreation park, fair, bowling alley, gymnasium, shooting gallery, billiard and pool parlor, or other place of amusement; any comfort station; any dispensary, clinic or ...


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