Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School Dist.

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In Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School Dist., 509 U.S. 1 (1993), the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an Establishment Clause challenge to a federal program that permitted sign-language interpreters to assist deaf children enrolled in religious schools. The Court held that "government programs that neutrally provide benefits to a broad class of citizens defined without reference to religion are not readily subject to an Establishment Clause challenge." 509 U.S. at 8. Looking once again to the challenged program as a whole, the Court observed that the program "distributes benefits neutrally to any child qualifying as 'disabled.'" Id. at 10. Its "primary beneficiaries," were "disabled children, not sectarian schools." Id. at 12.

The Court further held that "by according parents freedom to select a school of their choice, the statute ensures that a government-paid interpreter will be present in a sectarian school only as a result of the private decision of individual parents." Id. at 10. Its focus was on neutrality and the principle of private choice, not on the number of program beneficiaries attending religious schools. Id. at 10-11. See, e.g., Agostini, 521 U.S. at 229 ("Zobrest did not turn on the fact that James Zobrest had, at the time of litigation, been the only child using a publicly funded sign-language interpreter to attend a parochial school"). Because the program ensured that parents were the ones to select a religious school as the best learning environment for their handicapped child, the circuit between government and religion was broken, and the Establishment Clause was not implicated.