(RNS) — A group of Orthodox Jewish parents of children with autism are suing the state of California, claiming it discriminates against religious students by barring private religious schools from receiving public funding for special education resources.
Six parents and two private Orthodox Jewish schools in Los Angeles filed the federal lawsuit on Monday (March 13) in the Central District of California, alleging that it’s impossible for children with disabilities to attend religious schools and receive the same funding they’d otherwise be entitled to had their parents sent them to nonreligious schools.
“Since parents often cannot afford to pay for disability services themselves, California forces them to choose between accessing those services and giving their children a Jewish education,” according to the lawsuit.
The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — enacted in 1990 — equips states with grants to fund special education services for students with disabilities, but in California, the lawsuit notes, “only ‘nonsectarian’ schools are welcome.”
Listed as defendants are the California Department of Education, California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond and the Los Angeles Unified School District. The parents allege that California is violating their constitutional free exercise of religion rights and want the state’s prohibition on funding to religious schools to be deemed unconstitutional.
The funding covers speech-language pathology and audiology services, psychological services, physical and occupational therapy, as well as social work, school nursing and counseling services, according to the suit.
The legal nonprofit Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is representing the parents.
“It takes a special kind of chutzpah to deny Jewish kids with disabilities equal access to special education benefits,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, in a statement. “California politicians can end this unlawful discrimination the easy way or the hard way. Either they change the law that is hurting children with disabilities, or they can shamefully fight in court for the right to discriminate.”
Becket noted last year’s Supreme Court decision that ruled Maine can’t exclude religious schools from a program that offers tuition for private education in rural towns where there are no public schools.
The American Civil Liberties Union, however, opposed this ruling — and with other groups such as the American Humanist Association, the Sikh Coalition, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Catholics for Choice and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty — filed an amicus brief, arguing that “the inclusion of religious instruction in public school funding, would knowingly coerce individuals since they cannot entirely dictate how their tax dollars are spent.”
In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the ruling “leads us to a place where separation of church and state becomes a constitutional violation.”
Becket noted that the Orthodox Union, which describes itself as the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization, is supporting the effort “to protect religious parents, their children and religious schools’ right to access special education funding in the state of California.”