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Court To Weigh Special District For Jewish Sect

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Washington

The U.S. Supreme Court last week agreed to decide whether a New York State school district created to serve special-education students in a tightly knit Hasidic Jewish community represents an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

In accepting the case of Board of Education of the Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet (Case No. 93-517), the High Court once again opened the door for re-examination of a crucial standard for evaluating the constitutionality of government programs related to religion.

The Court has passed up several opportunities in recent years to overturn or alter the legal test, which most public school organizations favor keeping intact.

In the case from Kiryas Joel, a community of Satmar Hasidic Jews, the Supreme Court will review a decision by the New York Court of Appeals, the state's highest court. That court ruled in July that a state law creating the village school district violated the First Amendment's establishment-of-religion clause because the primary purpose of the measure was to advance religion.

The statute "authorizes a religious community to dictate where secular public educational services shall be provided to the children of the community,'' the New York court said in its 4-to-2 ruling.

A Unique Community

The law establishing the district was passed by the New York legislature in 1989. It was intended to answer the question of how to meet the educational needs of the roughly 200 students with disabilities from the Hasidic community.

The village of Kiryas Joel, which is located about 40 miles northwest of New York City, was incorporated in 1977 and currently has a population of about 12,000. It is made up almost entirely of members of the Satmar Hasidic sect, who speak Yiddish, wear distinctive clothing, and do not watch television.

Community members send their children to sex-segregated private schools in the village for religious and general education. In the case of students with disabilities, however, the parents say they cannot afford to provide needed special-education services.

In the community's early years, teachers from the nearby Monroe-Woodbury public school district provided services to disabled Kiryas Joel children in an annex to the village's religious schools. But that practice ended when the Supreme Court in 1985 prohibited public school teachers from offering remedial instruction on the grounds of religious schools.

After that decision, some Kiryas Joel parents enrolled their disabled children in the Monroe-Woodbury schools. But the parents found that their children were "traumatized'' by mixing with students in the public schools, according to court papers.

After the Monroe-Woodbury district refused to provide special-education services at a neutral site in the Hasidic village, state lawmakers agreed to create a separate school district with the same boundaries as Kiryas Joel.

The district, which receives federal special-education funding, operates one school to serve about 220 students with disabilities from the village, including a handful who are not Hasidic.

"We have the full range of disabilities and of severity,'' said Steven M. Benardo, the superintendent of the Kiryas Joel district.

The school follows all state education laws and does not offer religious instruction, said Mr. Benardo, who is not Hasidic.

"We have been operating a public school system for the last three years under the watchful eye of the state,'' he said last week.

Failing the Lemon Test

The state law establishing the Kiryas Joel district was challenged in 1990 by Louis Grumet, the executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, and Albert W. Hawk, then the organization's president.

The plaintiffs argued that the statute violated the state and federal constitutions--an argument with which three New York State courts largely agreed.

The New York courts analyzed the case under the Supreme Court's three-part test for determining the constitutionality of government programs concerning religion. Under the test, enunciated in the 1971 case of Lemon v. Kurtzman, a challenged law or government program must have a secular legislative purpose, must neither advance nor inhibit religion, and must not excessively entangle government with religion.

New York's highest court said the law violated the second prong of the Lemon test by having a primary purpose that advanced religion.

"Because special services are already available'' to Kiryas Joel children with disabilities, the court said, the primary effect of the law "is not to provide those services, but to yield to the demands of a religious community whose separatist tenets create a tension between the needs of its handicapped children and the need to adhere to certain religious practices.''

If the Kiryas Joel district is upheld, Mr. Grumet warned, "I think you will see religious-preference districts popping up around the country.''

"This legislation was drafted to solve a religious problem,'' he said.

But the Kiryas Joel school board, in its appeal to the High Court, argues that the state law does not violate the Lemon test. If the High Court finds that the law does fail the Lemon test, the board says, then the Court should change the test.

Without the state law, the board contends, "a community that has chosen to live together to preserve its religious heritage and practices will be unable to educate its disabled children to live in the modern world.''

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