Oklahoma Court Rules in Favor of Children With Disabilities

These kids can use public funds to attend religious or secular alternative schools that better meet their needs, the court rules.

WASHINGTON — Children with disabilities will be able to continue attending schools better suited for their needs thanks to a recent Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling.

“This is a great victory for both religious freedom and the disabled,” said Eric Baxter, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented the parents of disabled students who were sued by their public-school districts, in a Nov. 20 statement.

In 2010, the Oklahoma Legislature enacted the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Program to give students with disabilities the option to attend alternative schools — secular or religious — using money that would have otherwise gone to public schools.

“The best thing about the scholarships is that they allow our clients to get the education that the public schools just don’t have the ability to provide,” Baxter said.

When it was indicated that some school districts that refused to comply with the new law would sue the attorney general over the program, state legislation stepped in and removed the responsibility of the scholarship funding from the school districts.

However, in 2011, school districts filed suit against several parents and students “in an effort to deny them scholarships,” the Beckett Fund said in a press release outlining the case.

Tulsa-area public schools sued the parents of students with disabilities, saying that it was unconstitutional for state funds to go to a religious school under Oklahoma’s Blaine Amendment, which the Becket Fund described as “a bigoted provision that targets religious groups.”

District Judge Rebecca Nightingale of Oklahoma’s Tulsa County ruled against the program in March 2012, agreeing with the school district’s argument.

In June 2012, the Becket Fund brought the case before the Supreme Court of Oklahoma, who ruled Nov. 20 that the Blaine Amendment could not be used to prevent religious students or schools from participating in state programs that are available to all other students and schools.

“The message from the Supreme Court today is unequivocal: These school districts should stop spending taxpayer dollars suing their most vulnerable students and focus on what they are supposed to be doing: teaching kids,” Baxter said.

He added, “Let’s hope the school districts drop their paranoia that allowing disabled kids to go to a private religious school of their choice somehow creates an official state church for Oklahoma.”