The case of Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District No. 92-94 was finally argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday, February 24.
The profoundly deaf Jimmy Zobrest – now a tall, handsome college freshman – stood at long last on the steps of the United States Supreme Court with his mother and attorney William Bentley Ball. The long, and sometimes painful journey to Washington for the Zobrest family, Attorney Ball, and the Catholic League began more than four years ago when Jimmy’s parents enrolled him at Salpointe High School, a Roman Catholic institution, and asked the school district to provide the services of a sign language interpreter as required by the Education of the Handicapped Act.
The school district refused, saying that this would violate the First Amendment’s prohibition against the “establishment” of religion. The battle was joined.
Attorney William Bentley Ball was drawn into the case early on at the urging of his daughter who had been one of Jimmy’s teachers in Pennsylvania before the family moved to Arizona. His daughter’s trust was well placed since Attorney Ball was and is a nationally recognized authority on First Amendment religious rights cases.
A long-time member of the Catholic League’ s board of directors and chair of the board’s Executive Committee in the transition period after the death of League founder Fr. Virgil C. Blum, S.J., “Bill” Ball is an articulate spokesman for religious freedom.
For Ball, the Zobrest case was a clear example of justice denied under the smokescreen of church-state separation. But unfortunately, lower courts have not seen this case in the same clear light.
The federal District Court in Arizona and the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit both concluded that the provision of an interpreter would create a “symbolic union” between church and state.
The oral arguments before the high court went well according to Catholic League observers who were present. The school district’s attorney argued that the interpreter would be part of the “delivery of the religious message,” and that the Zobrests wanted “a public employee standing in the classroom and informing James Zobrest that there is life after death.”
Attorney Ball made it clear that the role of the interpreter “is simply a translator, and that’s it.”
Questions to counsel from the justices revealed little, and we can only wait patiently now for a decision in this matter. A decision is not expected before July.
From the beginning, the Zobrest case has held out the tantalizing hope that its favorable resolution might well become a new landmark in the long and often painful struggle for religious freedom rights. Let us hope and pray we are on the winning side on this one.