Quest for tax-supported Hasidic school district returns to high court

Rebuffed a third time by New York courts, Jewish village perseveres

June 03, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Frustrated three times in trying to create a publicly financed school system for disabled students of their faith, a small Jewish community in Upstate New York took its continuing fight back to the Supreme Court yesterday.

The village of Kiryas Joel, made up entirely of members of the devoutly religious Satmar Hasidic sect, had been before the court five years ago in a failed attempt to get legal clearance for its own school district. It rushed back to the Supreme Court yesterday after its latest setback in New York state courts three weeks ago.

The sect prefers to have its children educated only in religious schools, arguing that distinctive beliefs and customs make it difficult if not impossible for Satmar children to adjust to mainstream school settings. Children who are not disabled go to privately financed Satmar-only schools in the village.

The community feels that it needs a taxpayer-financed school district for the disabled because of the special costs of teaching those youngsters.

Since the constitutional dispute over Kiryas Joel schooling began 14 years ago, the Supreme Court has changed its mind significantly about government and religion, and it has relaxed its strict demand that government avoid giving almost any kind of public aid to a religious group.

Still, Kiryas Joel's saga runs on. Its longest list of legal grievances is with New York's highest state court: three times in the past decade the state Legislature has passed a law to authorize a Kiryas Joel school district to educate its disabled youth in a religious setting, and three times the state Court of Appeals has said no in response to lawsuits by two state taxpayers.

Each approach, the state court has said, unconstitutionally favored the Satmar religion.

The latest defeat in the Court of Appeals came three weeks ago. The latest Kiryas Joel district law, the court said in a 4-3 decision, "secures for one religious community a unique and significant benefit: a public school where all the students adhere to the tenets of a particular religion." As a result, it added, the latest version "prefers one religion over others."

The state court said that the Supreme Court would apparently allow a public school district next door to the Satmar village to operate a special school just for the village's disabled youth. It suggested that both sides in the dispute should explore that possibility instead of pursuing "further legal strife." The Satmars do not want that option.

The dissenting judges said that the fight has a "David and Goliath" aspect to it, and added that "it is difficult to decide who will be left standing in the end as the true victor or hero."

The village had more than two months' time left for taking the case to the Supreme Court, but its lawyers moved rapidly, filing an appeal yesterday to give urgency to their case.

In the appeal, the village argued that the Legislature, in enacting the third version of its district, removed all constitutional defects found in earlier plans and took an approach that is clearly neutral toward religion.

The new law, the village lawyers argue, "in no way singles out Kiryas Joel for a forbidden religious preference."

Pub Date: 6/03/99

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