Religious Schools, Parents, Sue California Over Funding For Schoolchildren With Special Needs

By Matis Glenn

California Jewish schools and parents are suing the state over a law which permits public funding to be used for private schools – except if they’re religious.

Becket, a religious liberty legal advocacy group, filed the suit this week on behalf of Shalhevet High School and Yavneh Hebrew Academy, along with two families which have children with special needs which were not provided with funding for services which their children required.

Becket lawyers say that the schools and parents are entitled to funding under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law that guarantees free services to meet the needs of disabled children nationwide.

IDEA stipulates that private schools are eligible for the funding as well, which is used to pay for staff training, special education programs, assistive technology, and other services.

But in California, the Legislature allows only secular private schools to participate in this program and has categorically excluded religious schools from participation. Becket’s court challenge aims to “ensure that religious parents, their children with disabilities, and religious schools are treated equally under the law,” the group said in a statement.

“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. “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.”

Excluding religious schools from receiving public funds, says Becket lawyers, contravenes a recent Supreme Court decision in Carson v. Makin, which struck down a Maine law that attempted to allow private secular schools access to public funding, but not religious schools. “Carson builds on a long line of cases holding that religious people cannot be excluded from government benefits programs solely because they are religious,” the statement read.

“California’s elected officials should want to help the most vulnerable members of our society, not hurt them,” said Rassbach. “There is no reason to stand by this outmoded law instead of giving kids with disabilities equal access to benefits.”

The lawsuit was supported by the Orthodox Union, which encouraged community members to reach out to Becket’s team, and held meetings with parents, schools, and community leaders.

Parents of children with special needs voiced their struggles, describing the painful choices they’ve had to make, between sending their children to public school, shouldering the financial responsibility on their own, or if they can’t afford it, forgoing the special services that their children need. In public schools, not only would the children be deprived of a Jewish education, parents said that they repeatedly needed to visit the school to make sure that their children were only eating kosher food and grappled with other difficulties.

“There are two reasons why this lawsuit is so important,” Maury Litwack, of the Orthodox Union, who is involved in the legal proceedings told Hamodia.

“Firstly, parents are being treated unfairly. And second, this is the domino effect from the Supreme Court decision that we were all paying attention to. We are going to continue to look at any example of this around the country; federal, state, and local government where this is taking place, because the Supreme Court said that this is unconstitutional; you’re not allowed to do this.”

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