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Parents Of Deaf Student Lose Supreme Court Case

January 8, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A Virginia couple who wanted their local school board to pay for the interpreter their deaf son relied on while attending a religious high school lost a Supreme Court appeal today.

The court, without comment, turned away the religious-freedom arguments by Stafford County, Va., residents Robert and Kathleen Goodall.

The Goodalls’ son, Matthew, is profoundly deaf. To attend regular schools, he required the special-education service of a cued-speech interpreter.

In cued speech, the shape and position of a speaker’s hands together with the shape of his lips make every sound visually distinct. Until 1984, the Stafford County school district provided Matthew with such an interpreter at no cost.

But beginning in 1984, the Goodalls placed Matthew in private, Christian schools. When the county school district refused to provide an interpreter for Matthew at his religious school, Mrs. Goodall served as his 6th, 7th and 8th grade interpreter.

During Matthew’s high school years at Fredericksburg Christian School, the Goodalls hired such an interpreter, for about $13,000 a year. They sued the county seeking to be reimbursed, contending that having to pay constituted a substantial burden on their religious freedom.

Specifically, the Goodalls contended that the county’s refusal to pay for Matthew’s interpreter at a religious school violated the family’s First Amendment right to exercise their religious beliefs and the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

A federal judge and the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the Goodalls.

``We find that no substantial burden was imposed on the Goodalls’ free-exercise of religion,″ the appeals court ruled.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that public school boards do not violate the constitutionally required separation of church and state by providing interpreters for deaf students who attend religious schools. But the high court never has said failure to provide such help violates someone’s religious rights.

In its ruling last July, the 4th Circuit court said, ``The Supreme Court has consistently held that a statute does not impinge on a constitutional right merely because it does not subsidize that right.″

In the appeal acted on today, the Goodalls argued that Congress intended such denials of funding to fall under the definition of a legally suspect ``substantial burden.″

Stafford County school officials urged the justices to reject the appeal. If the Goodalls’ argument were to prevail, they said, ``school boards would have to pay tuition for all students who attend sectarian schools because of their religious beliefs.″

The case is Goodall vs. Stafford County School Board, 95-666.

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