Gluten-Free for All: Are Celiac Patients Entitled to Discrimination Protections Under Federal Law?

Posted: Jun 01, 2019 11:57 AM

A federal appeals court has ruled on a controversial case regarding what extent restaurants must go to accommodate dietary restrictions, siding with a boy who sued a historical foundation after they refused to let him eat a homemade gluten-free sandwich inside the property's restaurant. 

The Washington Post reports that the "case was brought by an 11-year-old boy from Maryland who tried to bring his gluten-free chicken sandwich into Shields Tavern during a school trip in May 2017." Shields Tavern offers a fun and "traditional 18th-century experience with actors and musicians" that the boy was hoping to enjoy with the rest of his classmates. 

But the tavern told the boy he was unable to bring his sandwich inside, and that the kitchen staff would prepare a gluten-free meal for him. However the 11-year-old said he did not trust the restaurant, and that if he ate gluten would have a severe medical reaction including abdominal pain, digestive issues, and potentially losing consciousness. After being "humiliated," the boy's family decided to sue the restaurant for not making a reasonable accommodation for his disability. 

Specifically, the family "alleged that Colonial Williamsburg discriminated against him by keeping him out of the restaurant and refusing to change its policy against outside food in violation of federal and state laws protecting people with disabilities." 

The court ruled on Friday that the family had a legal argument against the restaurant and that Shields Tavern management acted in the wrong. One judge, however, disagreed with the ruling saying that it would force restaurants to "give up control over their most valuable asset: the food they serve.”  

The family's attorney said that “The court is saying here that yes, celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity can qualify as disabilities entitled to protection under federal law."

"This isn’t about a single person with celiac or non-celiac gluten sensitivity going into a restaurant and trying to use the restaurant as a covered picnic area, " she noted. "This is about a child who was part of a school trip to an educational venue who paid full price to be in the room and instead was escorted out back in the rain.

According to WaPo, a spokesperson for Colonial Williamsburg said, "We have a long and successful track record of preparing gluten-free meals for our guests and believe doing so is a reasonable accommodation, as noted by the dissenting judge...We are analyzing the decision and considering our options.”

But the paper says, "the initial ruling also “overlooked” evidence that the boy “repeatedly became sick after eating purportedly gluten-free meals prepared by commercial kitchens,” according to court filings. 

Now, after 2-to-1 ruling Friday, the case is sent back to the district court in Virginia for a jury trial. 

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