Zobrest vs. Catalina Foothills School District

School Law for Administration and Supervision: 0827.559
Brief submitted 9 December 1998

Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District
United States Supreme Court
113 S. Ct. 2462 (1993)

Freedom of Religion – public personnel provided to a religious school

Relief Sought:
Zobrest was seeking to reverse the local school ditrict�s decision not to provide a sign language interpreter because he was a Catholic school student.

Does a state violate the Establishment Clause if it provides a sign language interpreter for a child attending a Catholic high school?
James Zobrest is deaf. He asked the Catalina Foothills [Public] School District to provide him with a sign language interpreter who would accompany him to classes at a Catholic high school. He believed that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) required the district to provide the interpreter. The school officials denied the request. It claimed that the placement of a public employee in a religious school would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment (Meek v. Pittenger).

Findings of the US District Court:

The District Court granted summary judgment to Zobrest. This decision was based on the idea that the interpreter �would act as a conduit for the child’s religious inculcation, thereby promoting his religious development at government expense in violation of the Establishment Clause. �

Findings of the US Court of Appeals:
The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Findings of the US Supreme Court:
Reversed. In the Nyquist decision, it was found that the Establishment Clause requires government to be neutral towards religion and to refrain from action that might be deemed to constitute state sponsorship of a religion. As for education, Mueller v. Allen allowed states to provide tax deductions to parents whose children attend religious schools and Witters v. Washington Dept. of Services for Blind gave vocational assistance to a blind person studying at a Christian college. In the Allen case, textbooks were provided to religious schools. The Court has disallowed programs that provided equipment and remedial teachers to religious schools (Wolman v. Walter, Meek v. Pittenger).

The Court held that providing a sign language interpreter did not constitute state sponsorship of religion. It based its decision on Allen and Witters, The Court decided that distributed benefits without regard to religion (neutrally). The Court also stated that providing an interpreter was different than providing a teacher because an interpreter, unlike a teacher, would not add or subtract from the overall environment of the school. The dissent disagreed, arguing that the Establishment Clause prohibited the provision of a public employee who would serve as a conduit for the transmission of religious views.

The Court drew a fine line between the provision of state benefits and the endorsement of religion. The Court is splitting hairs as to what it is allowing/disallowing to religious schools. There is no clear-cut rule being followed that will allow us to determine if something is permitted or not. This 5-4 decision shows the Court�s confusion as well.

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