In a landmark case that could have far-reaching implications, three Orthodox Jewish families in California are taking legal action against the state, claiming that it discriminates against their children's education due to their religious beliefs.
The lawsuit, known as Loffman v. California Department of Education, focuses on a state law that denies funding for special education services to disabled children attending religious schools, while their counterparts in secular schools receive crucial assistance.
The California law in question currently permits disabled children in secular families to access funding for specialized education services, such as speech therapy, behavioral therapies, and technological aids, regardless of whether they attend public or private schools. However, religious families, who wish to educate their special-needs children in religious schools, are not afforded the same financial support.
The three families and two Jewish schools argue that the law directly impinges on their religious rights and prevents them from providing their children with an education that aligns with their faith and values.
“We want to educate our son in a safe, supportive learning environment that meets his unique needs and upholds our shared religious beliefs,” said Chaya and Yoni Loffman, Jewish parents of a child with disabilities in Los Angeles. “Unfortunately, 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.”
Among the plaintiffs is Fedora Nick, whose 14-year-old son, "K.T.," is on the autism spectrum with cognitive, behavioral, and motor difficulties. In a testimony, Nick expressed her family's struggle to reconcile their religious convictions with the limitations imposed by the discriminatory law. She explained that the law had deprived her son of the same Jewish education that his older brother, "A.T.," received, adversely affecting his ability to participate in meaningful religious observances.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) enacted by Congress in 1990 allows families with disabled children to be reimbursed for specialized education needs. Nevertheless, California's current law bars religious families from receiving such reimbursements if they opt for religious schools, classifying them as "sectarian."
According to Nick Reaves, an attorney representing the families in the case, the law's exclusionary nature is unconstitutional. He argues that the state cannot deny religious families access to government programs solely based on their beliefs. While secular private schools can participate in the funding program, religious schools are categorically excluded, which Reaves claims is a violation of religious liberty and constitutional rights.
The case has garnered significant attention from the Orthodox Jewish community, with approximately 200 families and individuals rallying in front of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California to show their support for disabled students' religious liberties. Their attendance during the hearing further underscores the importance of this lawsuit to many within the community.
Reaves believes that the court's decision, expected to be issued within the next two to three months, may have far-reaching consequences for disabled religious children and their families nationwide. He points out that despite recent Supreme Court decisions favoring religious liberty, numerous outdated state laws still exclude religious organizations from government funding programs.
First published: 20:59, 07.27.23