California Jewish families fight for equal rights in education of disabled children

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Three orthodox Jewish families in California who sued the state of California over a law that they say discriminates against religious families with disabled children are appealing a judge’s dismissal of their 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.

Josephine Staton, a federal judge for the Central District of California, dismissed the Jewish families’ lawsuit on Aug. 9.

The families are being represented by Becket, a law firm specializing in religious liberty cases, which said Monday they are taking the case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Becket is arguing that the state is discriminating against disabled religious children by denying them financial assistance afforded by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Discriminating against disabled religious children

Each family involved in the suit 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. By being denied access to funding available to nonreligious families, these families claim they are being kept from fulfilling their religious obligation 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. 

What does the law say? 

Under IDEA, which was 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, following 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. 

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

Families appeal decision

Becket has now appealed the decision on behalf of the Jewish families and schools. The firm maintains that the Supreme Court of the United States “has repeatedly ruled that public benefits made available to private secular groups cannot be denied to religious ones.”

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“California is waging an indefensible and needless campaign against kids with disabilities just because they come from religious families,” Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, said in a Tuesday press release. “We have asked the Ninth Circuit to strike down this law and ensure that all kids with disabilities receive the care and support they need to thrive.”

“Politicians in Sacramento are denying religious families and schools special education benefits because they won’t renounce their faith,” Rassbach told CNA following the lower court’s ruling.

“The district court’s decision ignores binding Supreme Court precedent and allows this needless campaign against kids with disabilities to continue,” Rassbach said. “California cannot keep depriving vulnerable children of access to the resources that they need to thrive.”

According to Becket, both sides will likely argue their case at the Ninth Circuit this winter.

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