The Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District, 509 U.S. 1 (1993), decision held that the establishment clause of the First Amendment did not prohibit a school district from furnishing a sign-language interpreter to a deaf student enrolled in a Catholic high school under provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and its Arizona counterpart. In so doing, the Court overruled a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that such accommodation would violate the “primary effects” prong of the Lemon test, as established in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971).

Court said First Amendment didn't stop religious institutions from sharing in public social welfare programs

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote the opinion on behalf of five justices, arguing that the establishment clause did not prohibit religious institutions from sharing in “publicly sponsored social welfare programs.” He relied both on Mueller v. Allen (1983), which involved tuition reimbursements, and Witters v. Washington Department of Services for the Blind (1986), which permitted vocational assistance to a blind person in ministerial studies. Rehnquist did not think the physical presence of an interpreter on parochial school grounds made a significant difference. Opponents had put forth that the physical presence of an interpreter in a parochial school led to some kind of “symbolic” association or endorsement of religion. He also denied the relevance of the precedents in Meek v. Pittenger (1975) and Grand Rapids School District v. Ball (1975), because he believed that the primary beneficiaries of the sign language interpreter were the handicapped children as opposed to the sectarian schools. He found the program to be “neutral” and therefore constitutional.

Dissenters thought Court should not have considered constitutional issues

Justice Harry A. Blackmun wrote a dissent joined in part by three other justices. Justice Blackmun argued that the Court could and should have avoided the constitutional issue by looking at statutory questions and that its failure to do so effectively resulted in an improper “advisory opinion.” He further argued that the Court had wrongly allowed the lower court to authorize “a public employee to participate directly in religious indoctrination” and expressed concern about the “ongoing, daily, and intimate governmental participation in the teaching and propagation of religious doctrine.”

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, in a separate dissent joined by Justice John Paul Stevens, argued that the Court should have vacated and remanded the case for initial consideration under statutory and regulatory, rather than on constitutional, issues.

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