Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District, 509 U.S. 1; 113 S. Ct. 2462; 125 L. Ed. 2d 1 (1993)

Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District, 509 U.S. 1; 113 S. Ct. 2462; 125 L. Ed. 2d 1 (1993)

Facts—The parents of James Zobrest, a deaf student, applied to a public school district for an interpreter to accompany their son to classes at a Roman Catholic high school. Both the U.S. District Court and the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court found that such aid violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment, as applied to the states by the Fourteenth, by impermissibly entangling church and state.

Question— Does a state violate the establishment clause when it provides an interpreter for a deaf student in a parochial school?

Decision— No.

ReasonsC.J. Rehnquist (5–4). Agreeing that courts should not decide on the constitutionality of an act when such a question could be avoided by reference to other issues of statutory construction, Rehnquist noted that such other issues had not been properly raised in the lower court decisions. The majority considered the provision of an interpreter to be a benefit neutrally applied whether parents sent their children to public or private schools, as in the provision of tax deductions approved in Mueller v. Allen (1983) and services for the blind in Witters v. Washington Department of Services for the Blind (1986). The mere physical presence of a state employee on sectarian school premises was irrelevant since this presence was not designed to relieve the school of costs it would otherwise incur and since the task of an interpreter, who was simply there to translate what others were saying, was quite different from that of a teacher [Editor’s note: This distinction may no longer be especially relevant in the aftermath of Agostini v. Felton (1997)].

J. Blackman and J. O’Connor authored dissents. Blackmun argued both that the Court should seek to address statutory issues before deciding on constitutional matters and that this was the first decision in which the Court unwisely “has authorized a public employee to participate directly in religious indoctrination.” O’Connor wanted the case remanded for consideration of statutory issues.

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