Benefits restored to Montana’s disabled children of faith
HELENA, Mont. — Disabled children attending faith-based schools who qualify for aid under a federal program will now be eligible to receive tuition aid in the wake of an Alliance Defending Freedom lawsuit against the Montana Office of Public Instruction.
Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys filed suit against the state agency in March on behalf of a hearing-impaired preschooler. Although she qualified for benefits under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, agency officials denied tuition assistance to the child and her parents because she was enrolled in a faith-based preschool. The agency has now agreed to provide the tuition aid to her and to other qualified applicants.
“All disabled children are equally worthy of a good education. Parents should be able to choose the school that best suits their children’s needs,” said Senior Legal Counsel Jeremy Tedesco. “Simply put, when the government provides financial help to disabled children at private schools, it cannot exclude children who attend religious ones.”
Montana participates in IDEA, which provides benefits to disabled children. Among the benefits is tuition aid for use at private schools. Prior to the lawsuit, Montana prohibited students from receiving tuition aid if they attended a faith-based school.
In September 2012, a four-year-old preschooler with hearing and speech impairments began attending the faith-based ABC-123 University in Columbus. The state-run Stillwater/Sweet Grass Special Services Cooperative previously agreed to pay for her schooling three days a week but later revoked the tuition aid. The cooperative cited a newly adopted statewide policy of denying tuition aid to students who attend private religious preschools for special education services.
In November of last year, Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys filed a complaint with the Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction on behalf of the preschooler. That led to the filing of a federal lawsuit, Wilson v. Montana Office of Public Instruction, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana, Billings Division.
According to the voluntary dismissal filed Monday in light of the agency’s settlement of the case, the parents of the preschooler will receive the tuition money they were owed to send their child to ABC-123 University. Also, the Montana Office of Public Instruction has agreed that it will no longer disqualify disabled children eligible for IDEA benefits from receiving tuition aid simply because they attend a faith-based school.
“State officials have done the right thing in recognizing that they cannot favor certain views over others and deprive disabled children of government benefits simply because of their faith,” added Litigation Counsel Rory Gray. “The First Amendment forbids that type of hostility toward religion. We hope Montana will serve as a model to encourage other states to avoid or eliminate such misguided policies.”
Allied attorney Matthew Monforton, one of more than 2,200 allied attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom, served as local counsel in the case.
- Pronunciation guide: Tedesco (Tuh-DESS’-ko)
Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
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