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District for Hasidic Students Ruled Unconstitutional

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A special public-school district sot up to serve students with disabilities from a Hasidic Jewish village in New York State represents an unconstitutional government establishment of religion, a state judge has ruled.

The school district was formed by the New York legislature in 1989 to serve special-education students in the village of Kiryas Joel, a strictly Orthodox Jewish enclave of 11,000 people about 35 miles northwest of New York City.

Although the sect has two private religious schools that serve most students, Kiryas Joel residents say they cannot afford to educate their disabled children privately. At the same time, parents have refused to send pupils with disabilities to nearby public schools because they do not want them exposed to outside influences.

in 1988, parents sought unsuccessfully to make a nearby school district provide a segregated special-education program for their students. (See Education Week, Aug. 3, 1988.)

Secular 'Camouflage' Seen

In an attempt at compromise, New York legislators in 1989 created a special school district to serve disabled students from the Hasidic sect. The 138 students currently being served by the special district attend a single school located within the village.

The New York State School Boards Association brought suit against the special district.

Justice Lawrence E. Kahn of the state Supreme Court, a trial court, last month ruled in favor of the suit, declaring that the district was created "to meet exclusive religious needs" in violation of the bans on government establishment of religion contained in both the New York and U.S. constitutions.

"The legislation is an attempt to camouflage, with secular garments, a religions community as a public school district," Justice Kahn wrote.

He added that the intent of the law was "laudatory" in that it "reflects the political process straining to meet the parochial needs of a religions group."

But "this short-range accomplishment could in the long run, jeopardize the very religious freedom" that members of the Hasidic sect now enjoy, Justice Kahn wrote.

The defendants in the lawsuit-who include the state education department and state officials and the school boards of the Kiryas Joel district and the nearby Monroe-Woodbury Central School District--said the ruling would probably be appealed.

"This was an unfortunate application of the Establishment Clause to a situation where there is a great social need," said Nathan Lewin, a Washington-based lawyer for the Kiryas Joel district.

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