Two things happened to Carrie Lucas when she was teaching middle-school science on the Pacific island of Saipan that radically changed her life.
The first, she says, was positive: "I just knew then that I had a calling to the ministry."
The second was considerably different: Lucas contracted a rare bone infection that has left her unable to walk, and her treatments have damaged her hearing.
But Lucas, now 26, didn't think that her new disabilities should have had any effect on her desire to become a minister in the United Church of Christ. After all, she remembers thinking, the federal Americans With Disabilities Act guarantees that the disabled have physical access to public facilities. She also thought that, of all places, a school of theology would have a charitable view toward people, regardless of their physical limitations.
On that part, she says, she was wrong. Now halfway through a three-year master's program in divinity at the Iliff School of Theology, on the University of Denver campus, Lucas has had a turbulent time. The school provided special equipment to help deal with her hearing problems, but Lucas says it was woefully inadequate. And the only wheelchair-accessible bathroom at Iliff is so small, she says, that she can't close its door while using it.
"These people are training the future generations of church leaders," Lucas says. "You would think they would be setting a good example of inclusiveness, but they just aren't."
So Lucas filed suit this past September in U.S. District Court, accusing the school of not following federal laws on accessibility for the disabled. Her suit is the latest of several incidents of student protest this year at Iliff, and she's been involved in all of them. In May she and a handful of other students were arrested and jailed for trespassing after they conducted a prayer vigil in the school's chapel to protest the lack of racial and ethnic diversity among professors and administrators. Lucas was one of five students who then staged a hunger strike.
George Tinker, a professor at Iliff, says he's not surprised by Lucas's suit. "This is a liberal school, and they can talk a good game," says Tinker, an American Indian and a supporter of the protesters. "But they can't walk the walk."
Lucas insists that she loves the school and says she took a long time deciding to file suit.
"It was only after going to them week after week after week and seeing no results," she says. "I talked till I was blue in the face." She says she was inspired to sue by reading the mission statement of the school, which includes the phrase "a commitment to justice in the social order."
"For me, disability issues are justice issues," Lucas says.
In fact, she says, her disabilities were like a wake-up call.
Before she was forced to use a wheelchair, she says, "I was like any other white liberal--I could pick what issues I wanted to focus on. I could decide to plant trees or whatever. Now I'm confronted with the disability issue every time I go out the door."
Lucas says she's not in federal court for the money. "I was just tired of fighting them," she says. "Now I have somebody doing the fighting for me. I need to use my energy to study."
A spokeswoman for the school says she is surprised that Lucas filed suit. "Iliff thinks that it has gone beyond even the requirements of the law in providing what Carrie has requested," says Sue Calvin, director of public information for Iliff. "I think if you would check into the record of the number of steps Iliff has taken, you would see that Iliff has been very accommodating." Calvin won't discuss specifics, and Iliff's lawyer, Richard Foster, declines comment.
Iliff's formal response, filed in federal court, argues that the school does not need to meet federal guidelines because it is a private school; in addition, it denies Lucas's claims of mistreatment.
Lucas, a native of Windsor, says she read school brochures stating that Iliff was in full compliance with the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act of 1974 before she applied. However, she says, that's not what she discovered when she arrived for her first day of school in the fall of 1996.
She immediately told school officials that the sound system in the large lecture hall of the main classroom building was not working. It was only months later, she says, after she filed a formal complaint under federal civil-rights laws, that the school began to take action.
The school's solution, she says, was to lend her a hand-held mike with headphones, but she was unable to hold it and take notes at the same time.
Dissatisfied with the school's response to her continued complaints, she contacted a lawyer, Tim Fox, who also uses a wheelchair. With Fox's help, she persuaded the school to install a wireless sound system in the lecture hall. The system is similar to the devices now available at most movie theaters to assist the hard of hearing.
But either the system didn't work at all, says Lucas, or it would work in unintended ways by picking up stray radio signals. "I'd be sitting in class, and these real fire-and-brimstone sermons from a conservative Christian radio station would start coming out of the headphones," Lucas says. Other times, it would pick up Rush Limbaugh's program. ("I think she should get big compensatory damages just because of Rush Limbaugh," quips Fox.)
The problems didn't end with the sound system. Lucas's bone condition worsened, and she had to switch from crutches and leg braces to a wheelchair. That led her to rely on the school's only wheelchair-accessible bathroom.
"The stall isn't big enough, so I have to leave the door open," Lucas says. "It's really a problem."
She says it's good news that Denver was recently ranked the best city for the disabled by New Mobility magazine, although she still finds it difficult to get around in a wheelchair.
The ranking is testament to the hard work of activists in Denver, she says, something she has new appreciation for in her current fight with Iliff. "It's not easy," Lucas says. "You have to push a lot of people's buttons."
Lucas says her difficulties helped prompt her to join the group of student and faculty protesters at the school earlier this year.
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In May, eight of the students, including Lucas, were arrested because they wouldn't leave a prayer vigil in a chapel after the campus closed. The students claimed that the concept of sanctuary should have protected them, but administrators ordered them to be arrested for trespassing. Denver police took all eight away in handcuffs. The protesters refused bond and stayed in jail overnight. Administrators said at the time that the building that housed the chapel needed to be secure because it had been burglarized earlier in the year. The city later dropped charges against the eight divinity students.
A group of five students, again including Lucas, then went on a hunger strike, with some drinking only water for a month. The protesters said there was too little diversity among teachers, especially for a school that claimed to be on the leading edge of liberal, progressive theology. They also demanded that a member of a minority group be named as an administrator.
The hunger strike ended when administrators promised to enter mediation. Those talks ended last month. "There were a lot of promises made, so we'll see," Lucas says. The school didn't exactly stigmatize the protesters; it wound up granting class credit in the course "Religion and Human Transformation" to some of the students for their reports on participating in the protests.
School spokeswoman Calvin contends that Iliff is "committed to diversity" and has set up an "Institutional Racism Commission." The school claims that 18 percent of its 340 students are minorities and that 4 of the 19 full-time professors are "persons of color." But all of the administrators are white, the protestors point out. "The school presents itself as one of the most liberal schools of theology," says student Amy Wake, "so it should go further than other schools.