LOS ANGELES (CN) — A group of orthodox Jewish parents of disabled children sued California for religious discrimination because the state won't pay for special education programs and resources at private religious schools.
Six parents and two Jewish schools, backed by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, filed a complaint Monday in Los Angeles federal court claiming the state discriminates against religious children with disabilities and against religious schools.
The parents say their children have been diagnosed with autism and that they are forced to choose either to send them to a private religious school, as they prefer, and pay themselves for prohibitively expense therapy and special-education services, or send their children to a public school where they run into conflicts observing religious holidays and other commitments.
“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. “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.”
Whereas other states place children with disabilities in both secular and religious private schools, depending on the best fit for each individual child, according to the Becket Fund, in California, only secular private schools can participate in federal funding under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that is administrated through the state.
The Washington-based nonprofit pointed to last year's U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down a Maine law that allowed private secular schools and families to access public funding, as part of a tuition assistance program for students to attend private school if their town does not have a public high school, but excluded religious schools and families from the same access.
The American Civil Liberties Union was among groups that opposed overturning the Maine law because, the organization argued, it would overturn a longstanding precedent that states needn't fund religious instruction and activities. Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor observed in dissent that the ruling “leads us to a place where separation of church and state becomes a constitutional violation.”
In the LA case, the parents cited the Supreme Court's ruling in arguing that California violates their right to free exercise of religion by categorically “excluding some members of the community from an otherwise generally available public benefit because of their religious exercise.”
Representatives of the California Department of Education didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit. A spokesperson for the Los Angeles Unified School District said they don't comment on pending litigation.
The parents claim California violates their constitutional free exercise of religion rights as well as their equal protection rights. and they seek a court ruling that California’s prohibition on funding to religious schools is unconstitutional and should be halted.
The parents and schools are represented by Rassbach, Daniel Chen, Laura Wolk Slavis and Brandon Winchel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington.
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