Hasidic Public School Loses Again Before U.S. Supreme Court, but Supporters Persist

New York Times, October 13, 1999
By Lisa W. Foderaro

WHITE PLAINS -- The United States Supreme Court decided on Tuesday not to hear an appeal from Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic village in upstate New York, meaning that for the third time the village's quest for its own school district was held to be unconstitutional.

But in this case, three strikes does not mean they are out. Village and state officials have tried unsuccessfully for a decade to establish a separate public school district to educate its disabled children.

It was the third time that a law passed by New York State to help Kiryas Joel form its own district was struck down by the courts, and the Supreme Court's decision would seem to mean the end for the district, which has run a school since 1990 pending numerous appeals.

But a new law passed in August and signed by Gov. George E. Pataki provides an opening for the village to try yet again. This time, the statute, the fourth one drawn by the Legislature, expands the criteria by which new districts can break away from existing ones to such an extent that some experts say it could well survive a legal challenge in the future. In the past, state and Federal courts found the laws unconstitutional because they amounted to a favor for a single religious group.

The mood on Tuesday in Kiryas Joel was far from despairing. "I would have hoped that the Supreme Court would have taken the case and said once and for all that the children living in Kiryas Joel are eligible to get a proper education," said Abraham Weider, the Mayor of Kiryas Joel, a village of 15,000 in the Monroe-Woodbury school district.

"But the bright side is that we now have a much broader statute," Mayor Weider said, "and I haven't heard anybody saying that this doesn't meet constitutional muster. We hope it doesn't even get challenged." But the New York State Association of School Boards, whose representatives challenged the first three Kiryas Joel laws on the ground that they flouted the separation of church and state, said it was considering whether to contest the law passed in August. "We're analyzing it right now both in terms of its applicability to Kiryas Joel as well as its constitutionality," said Jay Worona, the group's general counsel.

The Kiryas Joel village board met this afternoon and drafted a resolution applying to the Monroe-Woodbury school district for its own state-financed public school district, essentially keeping things as they were. Officials of Monroe-Woodbury said today that they continued to support the separate district.

Kiryas Joel's nonhandicapped students have always gone to private yeshivas. Through the mid-1980's, however, its handicapped children had attended special education classes in the Monroe-Woodbury schools, a district of 6,600 students.

Kiryas Joel, whose residents are almost entirely members of the Satmar Hasidic sect, argued that its disabled children, who wear distinctive religious clothing, were subjected to ridicule in the public schools. In 1988 the village successfully petitioned the State Legislature to create a public school district just for those children.

But the United States Supreme Court declared that law unconstitutional in 1994, and later attempts by the state in 1994 and 1997 to pass laws that avoided the favoritism problem while creating a special district were also found to be unconstitutional. In May, the New York Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, rejected the 1997 law and forced Kiryas Joel to take the case to the Supreme Court.

The decision today by the Supreme Court not to hear the case was a close one, with three members -- Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Sandra Day O'Connor -- voting to take it. Four votes are necessary.

A spokesman for the State Department of Education, Bill Hirschen, said today that "the village of Kiryas Joel is acting immediately, we're told, to reconstitute the district, and we will monitor their progress in doing so." Legal experts said the school district was not technically violating the law until the court's written denial of the application is sent down to the Court of Appeals in Albany.

Some opponents of the district voiced concern about the state's latest effort to establish the district legally. The legislation does not identify Kiryas Joel by name. Instead it gives any municipality of 10,000 to 125,000 residents that lies within a larger school district the right to petition for creation of a separate district and to get state aid.

The Governor's office said at the time of its passage that the new provision was potentially broad enough to affect 29 municipalities. Not everyone in Kiryas Joel wanted the Supreme Court to overturn the appellate ruling.

Joseph Waldman, a dissident Satmar leader there who has long opposed a special public district on the ground that the disabled children should also be in religious schools, said, "We hope this will send a message to the Legislature not to help create special laws which are against the interests of the children of Kiryas Joel."

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