Jewish parents challenge California ban on special education funds at religious schools

Jewish parents challenge California ban on special education funds at religious schools

WASHINGTON (OSV News) – A group of Jewish parents and schools filed a lawsuit in March challenging a California law that prohibits the use of special education funds for students to attend religious schools.

In Loffman v. California Department of Education, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, three couples said they want to educate their children with special needs in schools that operate in accordance with their Orthodox Jewish faith.

But they say California prevents them from accessing public funds for special education at private religious schools, while the state allows those funds to be used at private secular schools.

A federal law called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides funding for children with disabilities to receive a free public education appropriate to their needs. This funding can be tailored to their needs, providing things like staff training or assistive technology, or occupational therapy. The program established by IDEA provides this funding to states and allows those funds to be used in private schools when public schools cannot meet the needs of students with disabilities.

Becket, a public interest law firm specializing in religious liberty issues, said in a news release that other states place children with disabilities in private secular and religious schools, “depending on the best fit for each individual child”. But he said California excludes religious schools from participating while giving funding to private secular 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,” the lawsuit said.

Laura Wolk Slavis, of counsel at Becket, which represents the plaintiffs, told OSV News that IDEA mandates that students with disabilities must receive a free and appropriate public education and that “in most cases, that will be provided in schools.” public”.

“But if the public school, for any number of reasons, can’t provide that, the funds can be redirected to a private school,” Slavis said. “And that’s it.”

Slavis said IDEA itself allows for the redirection of funds to private schools, but California imposed its own restrictions requiring those schools to be nonsectarian. Orthodox Jewish families face a “particular problem” with educating their children in public schools, she said, citing a calendar that does not accommodate their religious holidays.

“There is a problem where the student is not receiving services, special education services, during times when public school is not in session – they are also not receiving services whenever they are not attending school because they are observing religious holidays. If the child was in an Orthodox school, he would only miss days related to religious holidays.”

Slavis said that following their faith’s kosher dietary restrictions can present challenges for nonverbal children who “may not be able to communicate their needs about kosher foods in public school.”

“So the Orthodox Jewish community faces unique challenges among religious families, where this restriction is particularly problematic,” she said.

A spokesman for the California Department of Education said the department cannot comment on pending civil litigation.

Nicole Stelle Garnett, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, said it is “very clear” that California’s provision that distinguishes between sectarian and nonsectarian private schools’ eligibility for funding is unconstitutional. Federal law, she said, allows the funds to be used at private religious schools, including Catholic schools.

“This particular lawsuit is cut and dry in my view,” Garnett said. “The Supreme Court has been clear about this — states cannot discriminate against religious providers when they provide benefits to private providers. This is in the context of education, in the context of social services, all of it.”

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