Washington Parents Fight Special-Ed Discrimination

Published February 1, 2009

Three families with disabled children who attend religious schools have filed a federal lawsuit against the state of Washington after it denied them access to the assistance normally provided under the federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.

The lawsuit was filed in November, and the case will likely play out through 2009 as the families argue their case raises a valid constitutional issue.

“Washington’s regulation directly targets families who choose religious schools for their children,” said Michael Bindas, the lead attorney on the suit. “Washington offers special education to everyone except those whose parents choose a religious school. That’s religious discrimination, and it’s unconstitutional.”

“It’s really upsetting that families have to go through so much stress and so much haggling with the state because their children go to a specific school,” said Andrew Campanella, director of communications for the Alliance for School Choice, a Washington, DC-based organization.

“We need a system where parents who are working their hardest to educate children who have special learning needs are not discriminated against simply because they are doing what is best for their child,” Campanella said.

Restrictive Amendment

Under the IDEA, the federal government provides money to states to provide special-education services for children with special needs in both private and public schools.

The Washington state government justifies its ban on special-education services in religious schools through the Blaine amendment in its constitution, which forbids direct government aid to religious institutions. If the families want IDEA help, the state has said, the children must travel to a “non-sectarian” school or offsite location.

But the families argue the state has created a policy of religious discrimination and is violating their right to choose their children’s schools.

The Institute for Justice (IJ), a civil liberties law firm based in Washington, DC that is working with the families, said the amendment is an unfortunate relic of nineteenth-century religious bigotry.

National Implications

Bindas, an IJ staff attorney, said the U.S. Constitution requires states to be neutral toward religious programs, neither favoring nor discriminating against any religion. He said the state of Washington is violating this requirement by singling out families who send their children to religious schools. It creates a policy much more restrictive than any other state’s, he noted.

“We hope to vindicate these parents,” Bindas said.

In addition, Bindas said, Washington’s stance keeps parents from choosing the education they believe best suits their child. “No parent should be forced to choose between their child’s physical needs and the school they believe is best for their child,” he said.

Bindas said the lawsuit has national implications because 37 state constitutions have similar Blaine amendments, which can be eliminated only by state legislators.

Jillian Melchior ([email protected]) writes from Michigan.