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Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District

509 U.S. 1 (1993)

Facts of the Case:

The parents of a deaf child, James Zobrest, sued their school district after it failed to provide a sign language interpreter for their son who attended a Catholic school. They claimed that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the First Amendmentís free exercise clause compelled the school to provide the interpreter. Both the federal district and appellate courts rejected this claim.


The Supreme Court decided 5-4 to require the school district to offer Zobrest the sign language interpreter.

Majority Opinion: (Chief Justice Rehnquist)

The Court has consistently held that programs that neutrally offer assistance to a class of citizens are not subject to Establishment Clause challenges merely because the beneficiary is a religious organization. In this case, the parochial school is not being relieved of any financial burden that they otherwise would have to bear (as in the case of purchasing textbooks or other supplies for religious schools). The sign language interpreter receiving the public funding will not add to the religious environment in which Zobrestís parents chose to place their son.

Dissenting Opinion: (Justice Blackmun:)

The Court should not decide cases based on hypothetical situation or act as an advisory board.  It is not clear that the statute required, or prohibited, the government to provide an interpreter for a nonpublic religious school.  Therefore, the case should be remanded back to the state so that this issue can be decided.  To deliver a decision now without needing to is to "unnecessarily address an important constitutional issue, disregarding longstanding principles of constitutional adjudication."


This decision permitted public employees to work in parochial schools. The function served by the interpreter would not be considered religious even though the person would be translating religiously based information. The Court also determined that this assistance did not relieve the religious school of a burden that it otherwise would have borne independently.


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Last modified: 02/16/01