Satmar public school ruled unconstitutional

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NEW YORK — A state court ruling forbidding the Satmar Chassidim from operating a public school district was applauded by church-state separationists and denounced by supporters of the ultrareligious sect.

The Appellate Division of the New York state Supreme Court on Monday declared that a special school district for disabled children in Kiryas Joel, a village created by Satmar Chassidim in Orange County, N.Y., is unconstitutional.

The court said the district violates the First Amendment's prohibition against the establishment of religion.

For Jews who opposed the school district, which was created to serve the Satmars, the decision "recognizes that the constitutional principle that government and religion remain separate is too important to be covered by legislative fig leaves," said Marc Stern, who represents the American Jewish Congress, which opposed the district.

Satmar school district supporters believe the case shows that Chassidim are treated unfairly and that the court has an anti-religious bias.

The reasoning behind rulings "attacking Kiryas Joel is that Chassidim cannot be trusted to teach only secular subjects," said Dennis Rapps, executive director and general counsel for the National Commission on Law and Public Affairs, a group of attorneys who represent Orthodox interests.

"It's against the law to teach religion in public school and if [schools] do it, they should be sanctioned, but you can't do it in advance," said Rapps.

"This is America. You can't disqualify someone" from running a school district "because he's a member of a religious sect," Rapps added. But "when it comes to Chassidim, all the rules change."

Because the attorney for Kiryas Joel has vowed to appeal the decision, the conflict, which began in 1989, seems far from over.

Once an appeal is filed, the school district, which serves a dozen seriously disabled and about 250 learning-disabled Satmar children, will be able to go on with business as usual until the case is heard again.

The public school district was created in 1994 by the New York state Legislature and then-Gov. Mario Cuomo after a U.S. Supreme Court decision earlier that year termed unconstitutional a 1989 law setting up the school district and identifying it by name.

In this week's ruling, the court termed the 1994 law creating the public school district a "subterfuge" and a "camouflage" because the demographic criteria it required were designed to benefit only Kiryas Joel's Satmar community.

Kiryas Joel was incorporated several years ago as a village. Its entire population of 12,000 is Satmar Chassidim, whose community is largely based in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, N.Y.

The Satmar community's disabled children used to attend the yeshivas where the rest of the village's youngsters study. They received state-funded special instruction until a 1985 U.S. Supreme Court ruling barred public school teachers from working in parochial schools.

That ruling led many of the disabled students to begin attending public school in the Monroe-Woodbury district in the town next door. But some parents said their children were taunted because they spoke Yiddish, had payes (earlocks) and wore Chassidic clothes.

That concern sparked the 1989 law creating the separate school district. The law prompted Louis Grumet, the executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, to file a lawsuit challenging it.

"This school district would have set a terrible precedent," said Stern, co-director of the AJCongress' Commission on Law and Social Action.

"We don't draw religious lines in public bodies and that's been wonderful for Jews. This district does exactly that," said Stern.

But Kiryas Joel supporters disagreed.

Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union's Institute for Public Affairs, said the ruling is "another example of how the First Amendment has come to be viewed in some quarters as a mandate to prevent state and federal governments from accommodating America's religious citizens in any manner.

"The First Amendment was designed to promote religious liberty, not to be used as a tool to prevent religious citizens from enjoying religious liberty."