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Court Rejects Interpreter for Deaf Church-School Student

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A public-school district in Arizona may not provide a sign-language interpreter for a deaf student attending a church-sponsored school, a divided federal appeals court has ruled.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled 2 to 1 against an Arizona couple who sought to force the Catalina Foothills school district to provide the interpreter for their deaf son, who attends a Catholic high school in Tucson.

The court acknowledged that, under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the district would be required to furnish an interpreter if the student attended a nonsectarian private school or a public school.

But providing the government-paid interpreter to aid the deaf student in a church-sponsored school would violate the U.S. Constitution's ban on government establishment of religion, the court said.

"By placing its employee in the sectarian school ... the government would create the appearance that it was a 'joint sponsor' of the school's activities,'' wrote Judge Betty B. Fletcher in the May 1 decision in Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District.

One Dissenter

The appellate panel upheld the dismissal of the lawsuit by a federal judge in Tucson. The plaintiffs in the case, Larry and Sandra Zobrest, have been paying to provide a sign-language interpreter for their son while he attends Salpointe Catholic High School.

Judge Fletcher, noting that the Zobrests feel compelled by their religious beliefs to have their son attend a Catholic school, said denying the interpreter imposes a burden on their constitutional right to free exercise of religion. But the government has "a compelling state interest in ensuring against a government establishment of religion,'' the judge wrote, and that state interest justifies the burden on the couple's rights.

Circuit Judge Thomas Tang dissented, saying a sign-language interpreter is similar to a hearing aid, and would not independently convey a religious message.

"The withholding of vital assistance from a handicapped child solely because of his sincere religious desire to be educated in a Catholic school would evince hostility, not neutrality, toward religion,'' he wrote.

The Ninth Circuit's ruling was consistent with a decision in a similar case last year by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the Fourth Circuit case, Goodall v. Stafford County School Board.

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