New York judge bars public funds for Jewish school

Friday, April 3, 1998

The third attempt by New York's Legislature to create a special school district for an ultra-conservative Jewish community has been invalidated by a state judge as a violation of the separation of church and state.

State Supreme Court Justice Joesph C. Teresi ruled Thursday that the lawmakers' latest effort to create a school district for children of the Kiryas Joel village amounted to “legislative favoritism” of a certain religion.

“Viewed in the context of its history and effect, the inappropriate endorsement of a specific religion is the prominent message evoked” of the law, Teresi said.

Kiryas Joel, 45 miles north of New York City, is made up 12,000 residents of the Satmar Hasidic sect. Village leaders first sought approval for a separate school district in 1988 so that the village's disabled children could participate in publicly funded school programs without mixing with non-Hasidic children.

In 1989, the Legislature passed a law designating Kiryas Joel as a special district. The U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the law in 1994 saying the creation of the school district subverted the separation of church and state.

Shortly after that ruling, a new law was crafted by then Gov. Mario Cuomo and legislative leaders, designed to meet the Supreme Court's objections. Specifically, the new law purported to permit any village within a larger school district to become autonomous as long as certain criteria were met.

A New York appeals court struck the second law down last May concluding it allowed only Kiryas Joel to set up a special district for disabled students.

“The current law brings about precisely the same result as the prior law, the creation of a special school district for the village of Kiryas Joel an no other municipality in the state,” Justice Thomas Mercure said.

Following the demise of the second law, the Legislature, under pressure from political leaders of the Satmar group, passed the third version last August.

Teresi criticized lawmakers' third attempt “to ignore the rulings from courts at every level.”

Marc Stern, an attorney with the American Jewish Congress, a national legal group that has opposed the school district on First Amendment grounds, praised the latest court decision. The AJC provides legal support to the Jewish community and other groups often confronted with bigotry.

“For about the fifth time a court has reaffirmed that you cannot organize a school district when all the characteristics are religious,” Stern said. “We are also pleased because for the first time the court has ordered the larger school district to find a way to help the disabled children—that might break an impasse in the situation.”

Asked whether he expects attorneys for Kiryas Joel to appeal the ruling, Stern said “I think an appeal is futile, but I expect one.”

Barry J. Pollack, an attorney for the Kiryas Joel school district said that an appeal is planned.

“The statute at issue is very different from the prior statutes that have been ruled unconstitutional,” Pollack said. “We believe that the decision by the lone New York state justice does not fully take into account the differences between the prior statutes and the new one and believe it will ultimately be found constitutional.”

Pollack said the new law permits other towns or villages to create separate school districts. Pollack pointed to Stoney Point—a largely white enclave in a poor Hispanic school district—as an example of another village that the law permits forming its own school district.

Although the judge barred the district from receiving state funds, the appeals process allows money to continue to flow to the district, Pollack said.