Today, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, through its Institute for Public Affairs, welcomed a ruling by the United States Court
of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit which held unconstitutional a Minnesota school district’s refusal to provide state funded classroom assistants to disabled students who attend parochial schools. The appellate court’s ruling in Peter v. Wedl was issued on Tuesday.
The case arises from a lawsuit brought by the parents of twelve-year-old Aaron Westendorp, a disabled student who requires an in-class paraprofessional assistant to function in a classroom. Aaron’s parents choose to send him to Calvin Christian School in Edina, Minnesota. While the local school district provides classroom assistants to disabled
students who attend public schools and private secular schools, they refused to provide the same service to Aaron due to his enrollment at a parochial school. Aaron’s parents filed suit against the local school district and Minnesota state officials in 1996, contending that this practice violated their constitutional rights. In March, 1997, the District Court ruled against the Westendorps. Earlier this week, the Court of Appeals reversed that lower court decision.
In ruling in favor of the Westendorps, the Eighth Circuit chastised the defendants and stated that “the evidence in this case strongly suggests that [the school district’s] policy is a mere pretext for religious discrimination,” and that assertions to the contrary “ring hollow in light of [the district’s] actual practice of providing services to disabled
children at private nonreligious preschools and at home schools.” Citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1997 ruling in Agostini v. Felton (holding that public school districts may provide secular teaching services in private religious schools), the Eighth Circuit held that the school district’s practice violated the Free Exercise, Free Speech and Equal Protection Clauses of the U.S. Constitution.
Nathan Diament, director of the Institute for Public Affairs, stated that “this decision by the Court of Appeals is significant, important and correct. It unequivocally affirms a principle we have long believed and fought for – that religious individuals are entitled to equal participation in and benefit from state programs and may not be excluded from such in the name of the Constitution. It’s a good day for religious freedom in America.”