A group of Jewish parents and schools filed a lawsuit Monday challenging a California law that excludes religious parents and schools from using special education funding to serve children with disabilities.
In Loffman v. California Department of Education, a group of parents want to send their children to Orthodox Jewish schools but are prevented from doing so because California politicians prohibit federal and state special education funding from being used at religious private schools while allowing those funds to be used at secular private schools.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law ensuring that all children with disabilities in America can receive a free appropriate public education that meets their needs. This funding helps pay for staff training, special education programs, assistive technology, and other services. IDEA provides this funding to states to assist children with disabilities to receive free and appropriate education, including placing children with disabilities in private schools when public schools cannot meet their needs.
But in California, the Legislature allows only secular private schools to participate in this benefits program and has categorically excluded religious schools from participation.
This court challenge aims to ensure that religious parents, their children with disabilities, and religious schools are treated equally under the law, a result that nearly 60 percent of Californians would like to see, according to a recent poll.
Chaya and Yoni Loffman, Fedora Nick and Morris Taxon, and Sarah and Ariel Perets are Orthodox Jewish parents who want to send their children with disabilities to schools that provide both an education that allows them to reach their full potential, as well as one centered around Jewish religious beliefs and practices. Shalhevet High School and Yavneh Hebrew Academy are Jewish schools in Los Angeles that provide an excellent education and seek the ability to serve the needs of children with disabilities. However, politicians in Sacramento have made that impossible by denying religious schools the right to access publicly available funding to help children with disabilities.
“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.”
A recent Supreme Court decision, Carson v. Makin struck down a Maine law that attempted to do precisely what the California law does here—allow private secular schools and families to access public funding but exclude religious schools and families from the same access. Carson builds on a long line of cases holding that religious people cannot be excluded from government benefits programs solely because they are religious.
“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 Orthodox Union (OU), the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization represents nearly 1,000 congregations and more than 400 Jewish non-public K-12 schools across the United States. The OU said it is supporting Becket’s effort to protect religious parents, their children and religious schools’ right to access special education funding in the state of California.