Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District

RESPONDENT: Catalina Foothills School District
LOCATION: Catalina Foothills School District

DOCKET NO.: 92-94
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1991-1993)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 509 US 1 (1993)
ARGUED: Feb 24, 1993
DECIDED: Jun 18, 1993

John C. Richardson - Argued the cause for the respondent
William B. Ball - Argued the cause for the petitioners
William C. Bryson - Department of Justice, argued on behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioners

Facts of the case

James Zobrest was deaf since birth. He attended public school through the eighth grade where the local school board provided a sign-language interpreter. Zobrest's parents elected to send their son to a Roman Catholic high school and requested that the local school board continue to provide their son with a sign-language interpreter. The school board denied the request on constitutional grounds. The Zobrests then filed suit, alleging that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment required the school district to provide the interpreter and that the Establishment Clause did not bar such relief. The District Court granted the school district summary judgment on the ground that the interpreter would act as a conduit for the child's religious inculcation, thereby promoting his religious development at government expense in violation of the Establishment Clause. The Court of Appeals affirmed.


May a school district decline to provide an interpreter to a deaf child based on the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment?

Media for Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 24, 1993 in Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in No. 92-94, Larry Zobrest v. the Catalina Foothills School District.

Mr. Ball, you may proceed.

William B. Ball:

Chief Justice Rehnquist, may it please the Court:

The important issue posed by this case is whether Jim Zobrest, the petitioner, a profoundly deaf boy, would have to have forsaken education in the State-qualified religious school of his parents' conscientious choice if he were to participate in a program designed by the Congress of the United States to aid the education of all handicapped children, including children in public and religious... including public and private and religious schools.

Now, the courts below answered that question by saying yes, and that is the respondent's position and that of the respondent's amici.

Now, Jim, in order to be educated, had to have the service of a certified sign language interpreter, a related service under the Education of the Handicapped Act.

He had to have it on the place where his education was going to happen, and the place where his education was going to happen was Salpointe Catholic High School, a high school which meets the requirements of Arizona's compulsory attendance law and which is accredited as a college preparatory school by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.

But it's also a school which is pervasively religious, and on the ground, the sole ground that to afford Jim a sign language interpreter, on the premises of a pervasively religious school, would violate the Establishment Clause, the court... the respondent school district denied him the service.

Antonin Scalia:

Mr. Ball, before you get too far, just clarify one point for me.

Under the statute, could... does the statute only provide for in-kind furnishing of services?

Would the statute not permit the parents to hire their own sign language interpreter and be reimbursed?

William B. Ball:

Yes, Your Honor.

We don't find any authority in the statute for the school district, for example, to have paid the parents money so they could go and hire the interpreter.

In fact, there is a... under section 1415... the subsection I can't recall... it seems... would seem to preclude that.

All the funds therefore... funds therefore could not be disbursed to the parents for that purpose.

Antonin Scalia:

1415 is what--

William B. Ball:


David H. Souter:

--Let me ask you a different question about what may just positively be prohibited.

At any point have you litigated the effect of the Arizona constitution or the effect of the statute and the regulations on the ultimate question of entitlement here?

William B. Ball:

We have never... in this case because solely the Federal Establishment Clause was raised, we have not in any way gone into the Arizona constitutional question.

David H. Souter:

And you haven't litigated the legal as distinct from the constitutional issue.

William B. Ball:

I'm sorry?

David H. Souter:

You haven't litigated the question of legal entitlement, entitlement under the law and the regulations, as distinct from the constitutional issue.

William B. Ball:

Well, we have not litigated it because, in fact, the process had already gone a great distance.

The school district at the--

David H. Souter:

No, I'm not necessarily faulting you for it.

I just want to make sure that I am right that the record simply does not contain determinations on these two issues.

William B. Ball:

--No, Justice Souter, but I think it's important that I add there the fact that at the time the parents applied for EHA help to the school district, the... Jim was already enrolled at Salpointe Catholic High School, and the issuance of the individualized education program to him took place in the context of the fact that that's where he was and that the sole problem... the sole problem... and this appears in the individualized education report itself.

The sole problem was the Establishment Clause.

Now, the key issue, as we see--