The definition of a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) does not include religious and cultural instruction, according to the appellate court in M.L. v. Smith.

Plaintiff, M.L., was born with Down Syndrome, is a member of the Orthodox Jewish faith and resides in an Orthodox Jewish community in Montgomery County, Maryland. In 2009, M.L.’s parents enrolled him in Sulam, a special education program that serves the Orthodox Jewish community. In 2012, the parents and the Montgomery County Public Schools (“MCPS”) met several times to develop an IEP to address M.L.’s educational needs. However, the parents rejected the IEP because it did not provide functional instruction to prepare the student for life in the Orthodox Jewish community.

In 2013, Plaintiff filed a due process complaint against MCPS, alleging violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) and Maryland state law. Specifically, the Plaintiff alleged that the IEP developed by MCPS was “not appropriate for his religious and cultural needs” and failed “to prepare students to live independently in their community within their cultural guidelines.” (emphasis added). The Maryland administrative law judge found for the school district and concluded that neither IDEA nor Maryland law required a public school to provide religious instruction to disabled students as part of an IEP. Plaintiff then filed a complaint in federal court, which was dismissed because Plaintiff failed to show that M.L.’s IEP was in any way deficient or treated M.L. in a different way than any other disabled student. Plaintiff filed an appeal with the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

The appellate court, relying on the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Endrew F. ex rel Joseph F. v. Douglas Cty. Sch. Dist. RE-1, 137 S.Ct. 988 (2017), affirmed the district court’s decision and held that religious and cultural instruction does not fall within the school’s duty to provide a disabled student with access to the general curriculum. Specifically, the court ruled that under the IDEA, the school district only must address the student’s individual needs to the extent it takes to provide that access. The court further found that the school district provided M.L. with “equal access to an education, on the same basis as it provides to all other students with disabilities.” Since the school district “does not provide religious and cultural instruction to its students with or without disabilities, it “has no duty under the IDEA to administer such instruction to M.L.”