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Court hears plea from Calif. parents seeking to use education funds to send kids to religious schools

California state Capitol building
California state Capitol building | Getty Images

A federal court heard oral arguments in a case surrounding California’s prohibition on federal and state funds designated for children with special needs from going to religious schools, in this case, two Jewish schools. A religious liberty law firm argues that California's restriction is unconstitutional. 

The court heard arguments in the case of Loffman v. California Department of Education, where six Jewish parents and two Jewish schools are suing the California Department of Education, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, the Los Angeles Unified School District and its Chief of Special Education, Equity and Access Anthony Aguilar, over their refusal to allow families with children that have special needs to use federal and state funds designated for such students to attend private religious schools.

The complaint was filed in March in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing the plaintiffs in the litigation, said in a statement shared with The Christian Post that “California’s campaign against Jewish children with disabilities and the schools they want to attend is shameful and unconstitutional.”

Becket Senior Counsel Laura Wolk Slavis added, “We argued in court on Friday that the government cannot exclude religious people and schools from a public benefit simply because they are religious.”

Plaintiffs Chaya and Yoni Loffman, Los Angeles-based Jewish parents of a child who has disabilities, said, “We want to educate our son in a safe, supportive learning environment that meets his unique needs and upholds our shared religious beliefs.” They lamented that “California is forcing our family to choose between raising our son in our faith tradition and providing him the help he needs to reach his full potential.”

Becket contends that the refusal to allow the plaintiffs to use federal funds to attend the Jewish schools of their choice constitutes a violation of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, which it describes as “a federal law ensuring that all children with disabilities can receive an education that meets their unique needs.” According to the law firm, “IDEA funds help pay for the cost of staff training, special education programs, assistive technology, and other services.”

“IDEA is designed to ensure all children can receive a free and appropriate education, including in private schools when public schools cannot meet their needs,” Becket added.

Polling conducted by Becket in February 2023 found that a majority of both Californians (59%) and Americans (62%) believe that “the government should provide money for children with disabilities to attend whichever school is best equipped to serve each child, regardless of the school’s religious or secular identity.”

By contrast, 28% of Californians and 26% of Americans think that “the government should provide money for children with disabilities to attend private schools, but only if the private schools are not religious.”

The remaining 13% of Californians and 12% of Americans insist that “the government should not provide any money for children with disabilities to attend private schools.” An equal share of Americans (38%) and Californians (38%) described themselves as unsure when asked if “public schools are doing a good job meeting the needs of children with disabilities.”

Pluralities of Californians (39%) and Americans (40%) expressed concern that public schools were not meeting the needs of children with disabilities.

Just 24% of Californians and 22% of Americans were confident that public schools were effectively meeting the needs of children with disabilities. Becket compiled the data in the poll based on two separate surveys, one examining the opinions of more than 1,000 Americans and the other measuring the attitudes of more than 1,000 Californians.

The court is expected to issue a ruling in the case of Loffman v. California Department of Education in the coming months. In recent years, courts have repeatedly ruled in favor of parents seeking to use government funding at religious schools, most recently in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Carson v. Makin.

In the Carson decision, the court ruled 6-3 that the state of Maine’s exclusion of religious schools from a program that provides public tuition assistance to help parents send children to a school of their choice violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. 

Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at: ryan.foley@christianpost.com

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