Oliver v. Hofmeister
In 2010, the State of Oklahoma enacted the Lindsey Nicole Scholarship Program for Children with Disabilities to give students with learning disabilities access to private education by granting scholarships for students to attend a school that could help them with their specific learning disabilities. But four school districts used the state's Blaine Amendment, an archaic law that targets “sectarian” groups, to deny students the funds, arguing that it might aid religiously-affiliated schools. With Becket's help, the five-year legal battle with public school bureaucrats ended with a victory at the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Students with learning disabilities are finally able to participate in Oklahoma's scholarship program on equal footing with everyone else.
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A program to give children with learning disabilities better opportunities
In 2010, the State of Oklahoma enacted the Lindsey Nicole Scholarship Program for Children with Disabilities to give students with learning disabilities access to private education by granting scholarships based on the cost of their public education. The program 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. Yet 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.
A five-year battle with public school bureaucrats
Two of the school districts—Jenks and Union Public Schools—then 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, which dismissed the lawsuit, chastising the school districts for going after their own students.
Despite that ruling, the school districts renewed 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. Becket 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.
Giving children with special needs equal access to public programs
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. Thanks to Becket, the students and their families are finally able to participate in Oklahoma’s scholarship program on equal footing with everyone else.
Importance to Religious Liberty:
- Education: Religious schools should be able to participate in publicly available programs without discrimination, and religious school students should be able to participate in these programs on equal footing as students who attend non-religious schools.
- Dismantling discriminatory state laws: So long as anti-religious laws from the mid-19th century called Blaine Amendments remain in the books, people of all faiths can face discrimination, simply because they choose to attend a religious school.