Notre Dame Religious Liberty Clinic files amicus brief supporting Jewish schools’ right to receive special education funding in California

Author: Arienne Calingo

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Notre Dame Law School’s Religious Liberty Clinic filed an amicus brief in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals case Loffman v. California Department of Education on Wednesday, representing the California Catholic Conference (CCC). The brief was filed in support of Jewish families in California who seek to have their children receive special education services at Jewish schools with the aid of generally available public funds. However, the schools have been barred by the state of California from receiving those funds solely because the schools are religious.

This case argues that religious schools, just like their secular peers, must be able to participate in programs that support education in nonpublic schools. The Supreme Court has made clear that a state may not discriminate against and exclude schools solely because they are religious. And students who attend religious schools should be able to participate in these programs on equal terms as students who do not attend religious schools.

Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to aid parents in securing appropriate educational services for their children with disabilities, providing them with equal educational opportunities as nondisabled children. In line with this, IDEA provides federal funding for special education programs and many other services in schools across the country. Like other states, California also offers additional funding of its own to support students with disabilities.

California state law, however, explicitly prohibits parents from using federal and state special education funding to send their children to religious schools. IDEA does not require that schools providing special education services be secular, but California law has declared that they must be “nonsectarian” to participate in the program.

The Notre Dame Religious Liberty Clinic’s brief asserts that the exclusion of schools from California’s IDEA program merely because they are religious violates basic tenets of First Amendment law. It also addresses the lengthy, pernicious, and hateful history of discrimination against religious minorities such as Catholics and Jews that laws like this reflect. It presents the shameful legacy of hatred and bigotry against religious minorities that the exclusion of “sectarian” schools reflects. The brief argues that exclusionary laws like this deny people of faith the freedom to participate fully in public life.

Religious Liberty Clinic director John Meiser stated, “For over a century, minority religious communities have been excluded, demeaned, and pushed to the fringes of the public square through laws targeting ‘sectarian’ groups. It's time for it to stop.”

As the Supreme Court has consistently and recently affirmed, generally available public benefits that are open to private secular institutions must also be open to religious institutions. In recent years, the Court has likewise “disavowed” the legacy of bigotry that underlies many laws excluding “sectarian” schools and organizations.

Meredith Holland Kessler, staff attorney for the Religious Liberty Clinic, said, “The term ‘sectarian’ reflects a long history of marginalizing religious minorities, including Catholics and Jews. Whether intended or not, continued use of the term is inseparable from this oppression. The Supreme Court has stopped using the term because of its bigoted past, and others should do the same.”

The amicus brief was filed on behalf of the California Catholic Conference (CCC), the official voice of the Catholic community in California’s public policy arena. The CCC supports educational policies that increase learning opportunities, provide families with options for schooling, and promote successful academic outcomes for both religious and public-school students. Moreover, the CCC opposes all efforts to exclude and discriminate against people of any faith from full participation in public life. The CCC therefore seeks to ensure the meaningful protection of the rights of families and schools of all faith traditions to serve all members of their communities, including those with disabilities.

William Clark, Olivia Lyons, and Timothy Steininger, students in the Notre Dame Law School Religious Liberty Clinic, contributed to the brief alongside Meiser and Kessler.

“Helping research and draft our amicus brief was a formative experience because it pushed me to consider how we could add value to the petitioner’s case beyond reciting their merits arguments,” said Steininger, a third-year law student. “The project was particularly meaningful because all our work went towards ensuring families and schools have the opportunity to seek funds and services they have been denied solely on the basis of religion.”

“It was eye-opening to learn more about the discriminatory backdrop in which these education laws were passed,” added Clark, another third-year law student in the Clinic. “We sought to provide the Ninth Circuit with valuable information to make its ruling, which will hopefully ensure educational equality regardless of religious beliefs.”

Loffman v. California Department of Education is the sixth education-related case taken up by the Religious Liberty Clinic. Read more about the range of cases that the Clinic has taken up on our website.

About the Notre Dame Law School Religious Liberty Clinic

The Notre Dame Law School Religious Liberty Clinic represents individuals and organizations from all faith traditions to promote not only the freedom for people to hold religious beliefs but also their fundamental right to express those beliefs and to live according to them. Students in the Clinic work under the guidance of Notre Dame Law School faculty and staff to provide advice, counsel, and advocacy on a broad array of matters related to religious freedom in the United States and abroad. The Religious Liberty Clinic has participated in proceedings at all levels of federal and state courts, in administrative agencies, and before foreign courts and other governmental bodies around the world.

Learn more about the Religious Liberty Clinic at

Originally published by Arienne Calingo at on November 03, 2023.