Court Refuses N.Y. School Attempt

The Associated Press, October 12, 1999
By Laurie Asseo

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court today refused to let state officials in New York resurrect a public school district for a community of Hasidic Jews.

The court, by a 6-3 vote, turned away the state's argument that its third attempt to create a district for disabled children in the Kiryas Joel community does not breach the constitutionally required separation of church and state.

Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas voted to hear arguments in the case, but four votes are needed to grant such review.

Kiryas Joel is a community of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Orange County, about 45 miles northwest of New York City.

Virtually all residents are members of the Satmar Hasidic sect, which maintains an insular community where people wear special clothing, follow a strict schedule of prayer and religious study and usually speak Yiddish.

State lawmakers first created a Kiryas Joel school district in 1989 after village residents withdrew their disabled children from other public schools, saying they were traumatized by having to attend class outside the village.

Children who are not disabled attend private religious schools in the village.

The New York State School Boards Association challenged the creation of the public school district, saying it unconstitutionally advanced the Satmar religion.

The nation's highest court agreed in 1994, ruling that creation of the Kiryas Joel district "fails the test of neutrality" because it "singles out a particular religious sect for special treatment."

New York legislators passed a new law that year, again allowing creation of a Kiryas Joel district, but it was thrown out by the state's highest court.

A third law, enacted in 1997, sought to set neutral criteria under which a Kiryas Joel district could be established.

But New York's highest court invalidated that law last May. Under the law's criteria, only two municipalities - Kiryas Joel and the town of Stony Point in neighboring Rockland County - could create public school districts, the state court said.

The New York court suggested the dispute could be resolved by taking advantage of a 1997 Supreme Court ruling that allows public school teachers to offer remedial help at church-run schools.

In the appeal acted on today, the state's lawyers said the 1997 law sets "religiously neutral criteria" and "in no way singles out Kiryas Joel for a forbidden religious preference over other similarly situated groups."

A law cannot be unconstitutional "simply because a community of religious believers benefits" from it, the state's appeal said.

The school board group's attorneys said the law is not religion-neutral because it is so narrowly drawn that only two of more than 1,500 municipalities in New York could benefit from it.

In August, state lawmakers enacted a measure that would give Kiryas Joel a new chance to create its own school district if the Supreme Court failed to overturn the New York court's ruling. The measure would allow 29 small municipalities to establish new school districts with approval by the school superintendent and voters.

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