Washington Special Needs Discrimination

Shari DeBoom with her son Michael

DeBoom v. Bergeson
Freeing Special Needs Students From Religious Discrimination in Washington State

For years, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Washington offered special education services to children in both public and private schools—everyone except those whose parents chose religious schools.  Children in religious schools were forced to travel off-site to some “nonsectarian” location to receive services, which was burdensome and disruptive for special needs kids, and which often rendered the services useless.

To justify this ban on special education for children in religious schools, Washington relied on state constitutional Blaine Amendments—the same unfortunate relics of 19th-century anti-religious bigotry that opponents of school choice programs rely on to thwart educational opportunity.  The U.S. Constitution, however, requires Washington to be neutral toward religious options in public programs, neither favoring nor discriminating against religion.  The state may not single out families who choose religious schools and deny only their children the special education services they need to thrive.

To end Washington’s discrimination against special needs kids in religious schools—and to vindicate the rights of parents to choose their children’s schools from a wide array of options, including public, private and religious schools—the Institute for Justice Washington Chapter filed a federal constitutional lawsuit challenging the special education ban.  The case, DeBoom v. Bergeson, was filed in November 2008 on behalf of three families with special needs kids:  the DeBooms, Apodacas and Hamiltons.  

On October 1, 2009, in response to IJ’s lawsuit, Washington’s Superintendent of Public Instruction repealed the discriminatory ban.  It was a substantial victory for special needs children and educational liberty in the Evergreen State.


Essential Background





Client Photos

Launch Release: Freeing Special Needs Students From Religious Discrimination in Washington State (November 11, 2008)


Client Video - none available



Lastest Release: Washington State Ends Discriminatory Ban On Special Education at Religious Schools   (October 5, 2009)  

Legal Briefs and Decisions

  Download: IJ Lawsuit 

Case Timeline


Filed Lawsuit:


November 12, 2008


Court Filed:


U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington









Next Key Date:




Additional Releases


Maps, Charts and Facts

None Available  

Download Report: School Choice and State Constitutions:  A Guide to Designing School Choice Programs




Op-eds, News Articles and Links

  Article: A Victory for Educational Choice Liberty & Law (December 2009)

Equipping kids WorldMag.com, October 8, 2009

  State changes disability funding Lynden Tribune, October 7, 2009


End discriminatory ban on special education at religious schools Seattle Times, September 3, 2009

Article: Ending Discrimination, Expanding Educational Opportunity; Liberty & Law (February 2009)

OSPI sued for special ed in religious schools The Seattle Times, November 12, 2008

  Op-Ed: Suit aims for school choice for special-needs children, The Bellingham Herald, November 10, 2008

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