In a city boasting several prestigious universities, Chestnut Hill College is one of the city’s smaller schools, located in one of the city’s leafy northwestern neighborhoods.
But now it’s at the center of attention in Philadelphia City Council, where a resolution passed Thursday denounced the 2,400-student Catholic college for “seeking exemption from anti-discrimination laws.”
The school was trying to “turn back the clock on civil rights.” said City Councilwoman Helen Gym in a news release.
“The college is refusing to take accountability for Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission findings of racial discrimination and is instead appealing its case to the Commonwealth Court on the basis of religious freedom,” Gym said. “We are urging Chestnut Hill to withdraw its appeal.”
The school disagreed with that characterization.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” school spokesman Kevin Feeley said of the council’s resolution. “Chestnut Hill College has no intention of circumventing anti-discrimination laws.”
The resolution surfaced as the school appeals a 2015 Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) finding of “probable cause” in complaints ofracial bias in the 2012 expulsion of a black student over alleged embezzlement, who later complained to the PHRC.
The resolution references findings from the commission’s report, including that white students charged with similar cases got “lenient sentences such as mediation or writing reflection papers, always with the possibility of re-enrollment,”while every African American student charged with a violation “was expelled or suspended,” without further support from the school.
Feeley said the findings of the commission were just allegations, not facts.
“Those are allegations only. They have never ever been tested or proven in any type of legal proceeding,” he said. “We believe the allegations are completely false, and we are fully prepared to demonstrate that.”
The resolution specifically targets the strategy behind the college’s appeal of the PHRC commission’s finding of “probable cause” of racial mistreatment. Their appeal in Commonwealth Courtquestionedwhether as a Catholic school, they are underthe authority of that commission.
This “could set a dangerous precedent of removing students at private religious colleges in Pennsylvania from the protections and jurisdiction of the Human Relations Act,” the council’s resolution stated.
But Feeley argued that since Catholic high schools are exempt from the commission, it’s not clear legally if the commission even applies to Catholic colleges.
“This resolution condemns Chestnut Hill College for even asking the question, and we don’t think that’s fair,” he said.
The report came specifically in response to a complaint filed by Allan-Michael Meads, an African American student who was expelled from Chestnut Hill College weeks before his graduation in 2012 on charges of “embezzlement” related to the profits made by a student theater performance of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.”
The Inquirer said he was never offered a chance at re-enrollment despite paying about $2,000 in restitution. The Commission ruled in 2015 that no evidence showed Meads “intended to deceive, steal, or misappropriate funds.” Their ruling came with orders that the school schedule a “conciliation session” with Meads, but they chose to appeal instead.