509 U.S. 1 (1993), 92-94, Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School Dist.

Docket NºNo. 92-94
Citation509 U.S. 1, 113 S.Ct. 2462, 125 L.Ed.2d 1, 61 U.S.L.W. 4641
Party NameZOBREST et al. v. CATALINA FOOTHILLS SCHOOL DISTRICT
Case DateJune 18, 1993
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

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509 U.S. 1 (1993)

113 S.Ct. 2462, 125 L.Ed.2d 1, 61 U.S.L.W. 4641

ZOBREST et al.

v.

CATALINA FOOTHILLS SCHOOL DISTRICT

No. 92-94

United States Supreme Court

June 18, 1993

Argued February 24, 1993

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Petitioners, a deaf child and his parents, filed this suit after respondent school district refused to provide a sign-language interpreter to accompany the child to classes at a Roman Catholic high school. They alleged that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment required respondent to provide the interpreter and that the Establishment Clause did not bar such relief. The District Court granted respondent summary judgment on the ground that the interpreter would act as a conduit for the child's religious inculcation, thereby promoting his religious development at government expense in violation of the Establishment Clause. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held:

1. The prudential rule of avoiding constitutional questions if there is a nonconstitutional ground for decision is inapplicable here, since respondent did not urge upon the District Court or the Court of Appeals any of the nonconstitutional grounds it now raises in this Court. Pp. 6-8.

2. The Establishment Clause does not prevent respondent from furnishing a disabled child enrolled in a sectarian school with a sign-language interpreter in order to facilitate his education. 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 just because sectarian institutions may also

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receive an attenuated financial benefit. Mueller v. Allen, 463 U.S. 388; Witters v. Washington Dept. of Services for Blind, 474 U.S. 481. The same reasoning used in Mueller and Witters applies here. The service in this case is part of a general government program that distributes benefits neutrally to any child qualifying as disabled under the IDEA, without regard to the sectarian-nonsectarian, or public-nonpublic nature of the school the child attends. 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 individual parents' private decisions. Since the IDEA creates no financial incentive for parents to choose a sectarian school, an interpreter's presence there cannot be attributed to state decision making. The fact that a public employee will be physically present in a sectarian school does not by itself make this the same type of aid that was disapproved in Meek v. Pittenger, 421 U.S. 349, and School Dist. of Grand Rapids v. Ball, 473 U.S. 373. In those cases, the challenged programs gave direct grants of government aid—instructional equipment and material, teachers, and guidance counselors—which relieved sectarian schools of costs they otherwise would have borne in educating their students. Here, the child is the primary beneficiary, and the school receives only an incidental benefit. In addition, an interpreter, unlike a teacher or guidance counselor, neither adds to nor subtracts from the sectarian school's environment but merely interprets whatever material is presented to the class as a whole. There is no absolute bar to the placing of a public employee in a sectarian school. Pp. 8-14.

963 F.2d 1190, reversed.

Rehnquist, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which White, Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, JJ., joined. Blackmun, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Souter, J., joined, and in which Stevens and O'Connor, JJ., joined as to Part I, post, p. 14. O'Connor, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Stevens, J., joined, post, p. 24.

William Bentley Ball argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs was Thomas J. Berning.

Acting Solicitor General Bryson argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal. On the brief were Solicitor General Starr, Assistant Attorney General Gerson, Deputy Solicitor General Roberts, Ronald J. Mann, Jeffrey C. Martin, and Susan Craig.

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John C. Richardson argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief was Gary F. Urman.[*]

Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner James Zobrest, who has been deaf since birth, asked respondent school district to provide a sign-language interpreter to accompany him to classes at a Roman Catholic high school in Tucson, Arizona, pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., and its Arizona counterpart, Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 15- 761 et seq. (1991 and Supp. 1992). The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit decided, however, that provision of such a publicly employed interpreter would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. We hold that the Establishment Clause does not bar the school district from providing the requested interpreter.

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James Zobrest attended grades one through five in a school for the deaf, and grades six through eight in a public school operated by respondent. While he attended public school, respondent furnished him with a sign-language interpreter. For religious reasons, James' parents (also petitioners here) enrolled him for the ninth grade in Salpointe Catholic High School, a sectarian institution.[1] When petitioners requested that respondent supply James with an interpreter at Salpointe, respondent referred the matter to the county attorney, who concluded that providing an interpreter on the school's premises would violate the United States Constitution. App. 10-18. Pursuant to Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 15- 253(B) (1991), the question next was referred to the Arizona attorney general, who concurred in the county attorney's opinion. App. to Pet. for Cert. A-137. Respondent accordingly declined to provide the requested interpreter.

Petitioners then instituted this action in the United States District Court for the District of Arizona under 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(4)(A), which grants the district courts jurisdiction over disputes regarding the services due disabled children under the IDEA.[2] Petitioners asserted that the IDEA and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment require respondent to provide James with an interpreter at Salpointe, and that the Establishment Clause does not bar such relief. The complaint sought a preliminary injunction and "such other and further relief as the Court deems just and proper." App. 25.[3] The District Court denied petitioners'

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request for a preliminary injunction, finding that the provision of an interpreter at Salpointe would likely offend the Establishment Clause. Id., at 52-53. The court thereafter granted respondent summary judgment, on the ground that "[t]he interpreter would act as a conduit for the religious inculcation of James—thereby, promoting James' religious development at government expense." App. to Pet. for Cert. A-35. "That kind of entanglement of church and state," the District Court concluded, "is not allowed." Ibid.

The Court of Appeals affirmed by a divided vote, 963 F.2d 1190 (CA9 1992), applying the three-part test announced in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 613 (1971). It first found that the IDEA has a clear secular purpose: " 'to assist States and Localities to provide for the education of all handicapped children.' " 963 F.2d, at 1193 (quoting 20 U.S.C. § 1400(c)).[4] Turning to the second prong of the Lemon inquiry, though, the Court of Appeals determined that the IDEA, if applied as petitioners proposed, would have the primary effect of advancing religion and thus would run afoul of the Establishment Clause. "By placing its employee in the sectarian school," the Court of Appeals reasoned, "the government would create the appearance that it was a 'joint sponsor' of the school's activities." 963 F.2d, at 1194-1195. This, the court held, would create the "symbolic union of government and religion" found impermissible in School Dist. of Grand Rapids v. Ball, 473 U.S. 373, 392 (1985).[5] In contrast, the dissenting judge argued that "[g]eneral welfare programs neutrally available to all children," such as the IDEA, pass constitutional muster, "because their benefits diffuse over the entire population." 963 F.2d, at 1199 (opinion of Tang, J.).

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We granted certiorari, 506 U.S. 813 (1992), and now reverse.

Respondent has raised in its brief in opposition to certiorari and in isolated passages in its brief on the merits several issues unrelated to the Establishment Clause question.[6] Respondent first argues that 34 CFR § 76.532(a)(1) (1992), a regulation promulgated under the IDEA, precludes it from using federal funds to provide an interpreter to James at Salpointe. Brief in Opposition 13.[7] In the alternative, respondent claims that even if there is no affirmative bar to the relief, it is not required by statute or regulation to furnish interpreters to students at sectarian schools. Brief for Respondent 4, n. 4.[8] And respondent adds that providing such

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a service would offend Art. II, § 12, of the Arizona Constitution. Tr. of Oral Arg. 28.

It is a familiar principle of our jurisprudence that federal courts will not pass on the constitutionality of an Act of Congress if a construction of the Act is fairly possible by which the constitutional question can be avoided. See, e. g., United States v. Locke, 471 U.S. 84, 92 (1985), and cases cited therein. In Locke, a case coming here by appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1252 (1982 ed.), we said that such an appeal "brings before this Court not merely the constitutional question decided below, but the entire case." 471 U.S., at 92. "The entire case," we explained, "includes nonconstitutional questions actually decided by the lower...

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2 cases
  • St. Edmund's High School and Elementary School, (2001)
    • United States
    • June 8, 2001
    ...of everything from mathematics to Mass, does not violate the Establishment Clause. Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District, 509 U.S. 1, 113 S.Ct. 2462 (1993). In Agostini v. Felton, the Court observed that “[i]nteraction between church and state is inevitable, and we have always toler......
  • St. Edmund's High School, (2002)
    • United States
    • September 6, 2002
    ...of everything from mathematics to Mass, does not violate the Establishment Clause. Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District, 509 U.S. 1 (1993). In Agostini v. Felton, the Court observed that “[i]nteraction be-tween church and state is inevitable, and we have always toler-ated some leve......
52 books & journal articles
1 provisions
  • Equal Participation of Faith-Based Organizations in the Federal Agencies' Programs and Activities
    • United States
    • Agency For International Development,Education Department,Justice Department,Labor Department
    • Invalid date
    ...religious character and the availability of other providers. See Zelman, 536 U.S. 639; see also Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills Sch. Dist., 509 U.S. 1 (1993); Witters v. Wash. Dep't of Servs. for the Blind, 474 U.S. 481 (1986); Mueller v. Allen, 463 U.S. 388 One commenter suggested that Zelma......

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