For Hasidic school, rituals at risk Religion: Satmarer parents are returning to New York's Court of Appeals, hoping once more to save the special school district for disabled children.

Sun Journal

July 31, 1998|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Isolated behind the highlands that rise above New York state's Hudson River, Jewish people of the Satmar Hasidic sect live quietly and apart in a village all their own. But they also live in the limelight of a constitutional saga.

For nearly 15 years, Satmarer parents in the village of Kiryas Joel have sought a way that they can afford to teach their disabled children in a setting that does not force the families to forfeit their religious beliefs or their culture.

Getting the state legislature to help -- by creating a public school that qualifies for state and federal aid but is able to conform to the Satmar lifestyle -- has created a classic constitutional controversy over government accommodation of religion.

For most of a generation, the Kiryas Joel Hasidim have been locked in cycles of frustration in court followed by victory in the Legislature in Albany, followed by a return to court and a repeat of the cycle. The controversy once reached the U.S. Supreme Court, and may again.

The conflict has been deepened by the devotion of the Hasidim to their faith and cultural practices: They prefer to speak and write in Yiddish and want their children educated in Yiddish; they do not want their children educated in environments that threaten their cultural norms; they follow rigorous schedules of prayer and study; and they keep their children segregated by sex at school.

Commitment to religion

So strict are their commitments as Satmarer that their young boys refused to ride a public school bus driven by a woman -- an incident that provoked its own court fight.

What a state judge, Lawrence E. Kahn, said years ago remains true. The dispute persists, he said, because it "reflects the political process straining to meet the parochial needs of a religious group."

Among the nation's public school districts, the one in Kiryas Joel is a rarity: It exists solely to teach the disabled, it exists entirely within a religious community that educates the remainder of its children in sex-segregated parochial schools, and it is run by a school board drawn wholly from the village.

The village and the parents are on their way back to New York's Court of Appeals, hoping once more to save their district -- a district they finance largely with villagers' taxes, supplemented by state and federal money that helps meet the particularly high costs of teaching disabled students. The Legislature's third attempt to guarantee the district's permanence has been struck down in lower state courts.

The Legislature's first attempt failed in the Court of Appeals in 1993 -- a decision upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1994. The second fell in the Court of Appeals last year, and now, this month, the latest attempt went down in a unanimous decision by a five-judge mid-level appellate court.

"The new statute lacks the neutrality toward religion mandated" by the Constitution, said the Appellate Division tribunal. The law's "primary effect endorses the Satmars' religious beliefs."

The Supreme Court, in its 1994 ruling against the first Kiryas Joel law, did not say that the Constitution always bars a religious community from having its own public school district. But it made clear that any such district must result from a general law that would allow other communities to create their own districts.

The New York State School Boards Association, in challenging the three Kiryas Joel district laws, has argued that none was actually a general law, since no community but Kiryas Joel could take advantage of them. Each time, the courts have agreed.

The school district's legal-affairs director, Joel Petlin, says: "We're not here to prove any constitutional points; we're just here to run a program. We all want something that would meet constitutional muster."

Strong backers

The district has powerful allies in Albany, the state capital: The governor, George E. Pataki, is a firm backer, and has been since he was in the Legislature. So is the assembly speaker, Democrat Sheldon Silver of New York City. And so is a 26-year veteran of the assembly, Democrat Joseph R. Lentol of Brooklyn.

Lentol argues that it is a matter of justice that Kiryas Joel should have its own school district to teach the disabled, "kids who have very little chance in life because of handicaps and the inability of the state to provide schooling."

Lentol's 50th Assembly District has many constituents who care about Kiryas Joel. The district includes the Satmar Hasidic community in Brooklyn's Williamsburg section -- where the Satmarer first settled after being led to the United States by their founder, Grand Rebbe Joel Teitelbaum.

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