Oliver v. Hofmeister
A group of Oklahoma parents of children with disabilities returned to court to challenge a ruling that forbids their children from participating in a state scholarship program.
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Related to previous Oklahoma Blaine cases: Jenks v. Spry & Kimery v. Broken Arrow Public Schools
Disabled children in Oklahoma will now be able to get their education from schools specially designed for their needs. After a five-year battle with public school bureaucrats, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that the Lindsey Nicole Scholarship Program for Children with Disabilities is constitutional and that religious organizations and individuals should have equal access to state aid along with everyone else.
The State of Oklahoma enacted the program in August 2010 to give students with learning disabilities access to private education by granting scholarships based on the cost of their public education. This allowed students to attend a school that could help them with their specific learning disabilities. The vast majority of the state’s 541 school districts immediately complied with the law by issuing scholarship checks to eligible students. But four school districts decided that complying with the law would somehow violate the state’s Blaine Amendment, an archaic provision in the state constitution that targets “sectarian” groups.
The U.S. Supreme Court has acknowledged that these provisions were “born of bigotry” in an era of widespread anti-Catholicism. Even so, these four districts unilaterally asserted the Oklahoma Blaine Amendment to deny students the funds, arguing that it might aid religiously-affiliated schools. Conveniently, this allowed those school districts to keep the funds for themselves. After Becket sued to defend the students’ rights, the legislature learned of their plight and changed the law so the scholarships would issue directly from the State Board of Education, bypassing the renegade school districts.
Adding insult to injury, two of the school districts—Jenks and Union Public Schools—turned around and sued the parents for accepting their scholarships! Becket defended the students’ rights again, this time all the way to the Oklahoma Supreme Court. The court eventually dismissed the lawsuit, chastising the school districts for going after their own students.
Despite that ruling, the school districts had the nerve to renew the lawsuit, this time against the State Board of Education for granting the scholarships. In 2014, a lower court upheld the scholarship program, but only for students attending schools that were secular or religious “in name only.” Becket stepped in again, arguing what should have been obvious: when the state makes benefits generally available to its citizens, it can’t discriminate against some of them just because they are religious. We pointed out that this bizarre ruling would require the state to examine the beliefs of every religious school and decide which ones were too religious to accept the students’ scholarships.
In February 2016, the Oklahoma Supreme Court once again ruled in the students’ favor, finally upholding the Lindsey Nicole Scholarship Program for Children with Disabilities for good. Oklahoma children with learning disabilities are free to use their share of the state’s education funds for an education best suited to their individual needs.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court’s ruling reaffirms that the government is not allowed to create a Goldilocks scenario of deciding which religious beliefs are ”just right.” The First Amendment requires that public programs be administered neutrally, without regard to religious belief.
The road to this victory was long, but—with the help of Becket— the students and their families are finally able to participate in Oklahoma’s scholarship program on equal footing with everyone else.