A group of Jewish parents filed a lawsuit Monday against the California Department of Education, calling for the state to provide religious schools with equal access to special needs education funding for their students.
Under California law, federal and state special education funding is available to public schools and secular private schools. However, state law prohibits these funds from going to private religious schools, such as the Orthodox Jewish schools these California parents want their children to attend. The prohibition also applies to Catholic schools, Protestant Christian schools, Muslim schools, and any other religiously affiliated school.
“It takes a special kind of chutzpah to deny Jewish kids with disabilities equal access to special education benefits,” Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, said in a statement. Becket, which provides pro bono legal assistance to defend religious liberty, is representing the parents in this lawsuit.
“California politicians can end this unlawful discrimination the easy way or the hard way,” Rassbach continued. “Either they change the law that is hurting children with disabilities, or they can shamefully fight in court for the right to discriminate.”
The lawsuit represents three sets of Jewish parents whose children require special needs education. According to a news release from Becket, the parents desire that their children receive an education that allows them to reach their full potential and is centered on Jewish religious beliefs. The news release notes that both Shalhevet High School and Yavneh Hebrew Academy want the ability to provide this education to children with special needs but do not have any access to state or federal funding for those services.
“California’s elected officials should want to help the most vulnerable members of our society, not hurt them,” Rassbach said. “There is no reason to stand by this outmoded law instead of giving kids with disabilities equal access to benefits.”
The lawsuit claims that the current funding rules violate the parents’ civil rights under the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. According to the lawsuit, the policy violates the First Amendment in several different ways.
The lawsuit argues that the rule “categorically excludes religious schools” from a public benefit otherwise provided to members of the community “because of their religious exercise.” They argue further that the rule treats “secular activity more favorably than religious exercise” and that “religious schools must give up their religious identity” to access these funds. They also argue that the rule discriminates against the parents’ right to “direct the religious upbringing of their children.”
According to the lawsuit, the rule violates the Fourteenth Amendment because it denies the parents’ constitutional right to equal protection under the law and that the Department of Education does “not have a compelling interest in discriminating on the basis of religion.”
Laura Wolk Slavis, who serves as counsel at Becket, told CNA that the “[legal] precedent is absolutely on our side” given recent decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Once a state offers a public benefit, it can’t exclude otherwise qualified participants just because they’re religious,” Wolk Slavis said.
On June 21, 2021, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that a Maine law violated the First Amendment because it provided tuition assistance to private secular schools but categorically excluded religious schools from accessing the same funds. On June 17, 2021, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the City of Philadelphia violated the First Amendment by denying a contract with Catholic Social Services of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia because its foster care agency refused to place children with homosexual couples on religious grounds.
Wolk Slavis said the California policy is based on an “outdated reflection of the First Amendment and must be changed.” She said it’s not clear how many parents and students are affected by the law because it does not allow religious schools to even apply for the funding but estimates that it affects a few thousand students.
A spokesperson for the California Department of Education told CNA that the department has not been served with the lawsuit yet and cannot comment because it could not fully review the lawsuit.