Three Orthodox Jewish families in California are suing the state for a law that they say is directly discriminatory toward religious families and students with disabilities. 

The families’ case, Loffman v. California Department of Education, concerns a state law that allows disabled children in secular California families to receive special funding for their educational needs at the public or private school of their choice. 

Under this law, religious families with special-needs children are not allowed to access that same funding if they would like their children to attend religious schools.

While families with disabled children in secular schools are reimbursed for their specialized education needs, religious families going to religious schools are not. 

Discriminating against disabled religious children

The three families, along with two Jewish schools, are being represented in this case by Becket, a law firm specializing in religious freedom cases. The families and schools are based in Los Angeles. 

Their case was heard on Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. 

Each family has a deeply held religious belief that they must have their children enrolled in Jewish education so that they can learn Scripture and Orthodox Jewish values. However, by being denied access to funding available to nonreligious families, these families claim they are being kept from fulfilling their religious dictates to educate their children in the Jewish tradition. 

Fedora Nick, a mother whose 14-year-old son “K.T.” is on the autism spectrum and has cognitive, behavioral, and motor difficulties, testified in a court document filed May 22 that “because of California’s discriminatory restriction” her family cannot follow its beliefs. 

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“Because California law categorically excludes private religious schools from the reimbursement program,” Nick said, “we are unable to follow our religious beliefs each day he remains in public school.”

“This law prevents us from doing for [our special needs child] what we have done for our other two children — providing them with an education that allows both their faith and intellect to flourish,” Nick added. “Without this law, we would be able to advocate that [our child] be placed in the best educational environment for his unique circumstances.” 

According to Nick, one of her older sons, “A.T.,” has been so impacted by his brother’s situation that he has become an advocate for the inclusion of children with disabilities. 

“In his advocacy,” Nick said, “A.T. has stressed that K.T. has not received the same Jewish education in public school as A.T. has received, which has negatively impacted K.T.’s ability to fully participate in many of the religious observances that are important to A.T. and our family.”

What does the law say? 

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) passed by Congress in 1990, families with disabled children can be reimbursed for their child’s specialized education needs, such as speech and behavioral therapy or assistive technologies. 

California, in accordance with the IDEA, provides families with federal and state dollars to meet their special education needs. However, current California law denies any reimbursement to families with disabled children who attend religious, or what the law calls “sectarian,” schools. 

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The result is that while nonreligious families with disabled children can attend the school of their choice, religious families cannot. 

Nick Reaves, an attorney with Becket, told CNA that California “allows any secular private school to apply to participate in this program,” but “if you are a ‘sectarian school,’ which is really any religious school, then you are categorically barred from participating in this program.” 

“The rule that California is enforcing here is basically saying ‘if you’re religious, you need not apply, we’re going to completely exclude you,’” Reaves said. “For religious families who have a child with a disability, they are unable to have their child placed in a religious school, which would provide them with the best opportunity to be successful and to thrive.” 

“No matter what the program is, discrimination on the basis of religion is unconstitutional,” he added. “They can’t be denied inclusion in a government program simply because of their beliefs.”

What’s next? 

According to Reaves, about 200 Orthodox Jewish families and individuals showed up for a rally outside the court building on Friday to express their support for religious liberty for disabled students. 

“We were really grateful to have [them],” Reaves said, “and I would say probably 40 or 50 of them came into the courtroom and listened to the hearing with the judge.

Reaves said that he expects a decision to be issued in the next two to three months. He believes Loffman v. California may have even broader implications for disabled religious children and families across the country. 

Despite a series of recent Supreme Court decisions in favor of religious liberty, Reaves said that “there are laws still on the books in states all over the country that exclude individuals or institutions, [such as] Catholic Charities groups or others, exclude them from participating in some sort of government funding program, be that a grant program, a contract, something like that, simply because they are a religious organization.” 

“This case challenges that view as outdated and as a misunderstanding of what the constitution requires,” he explained. “The Supreme Court [has] said you can’t exclude those who are religious from participating in the program. And our view is that’s exactly what California has done here.”