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Judge Upholds N.Y. Law PreservingSchool District for Orthodox Jews

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A New York State judge last week upheld a 1994 state law preserving a school district that primarily serves children with disabilities in a village of Orthodox Jews.

The law was the state legislature's response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last June that struck down previous legislation creating the school district for the village of Kiryas Joel, a community of Satmar Hasidic Jews about 50 miles northwest of New York City.

The High Court had said that the 1989 law creating a district specifically for Kiryas Joel was a form of "religious favoritism" that violated the U.S. Constitution's prohibition of a government establishment of religion. (See Education Week, July 13, 1994.)

The legislature then adopted last year a general law that allows municipalities to form school districts as long as they meet certain criteria for size and tax base.

Few in New York State doubted that the law's main aim was to allow Kiryas Joel to keep a public education program for its children with disabilities. Virtually all the nondisabled children in the village attend private religious schools.

The top officers of the New York State School Boards Association filed suit to overturn the law, calling the general criteria in the measure a "sham."

Religious Neutrality Seen

But in his March 8 ruling in Grumet v. Cuomo, Justice Lawrence E. Kahn of the state supreme court in Albany, a trial court, upheld the statute asreligiously neutral.

In contrast to the 1989 law's conferral of a "special benefit" on the Hasidic village, the 1994 law "provides a religion-neutral mechanism for all qualifying municipalities," the judge said.

Even if Kiryas Joel is the only village that now meets the criteria, other municipalities may eventually qualify, the judge added. Justice Kahn was the judge who first struck down the 1989 law.

Abraham Weider, the president of the Kiryas Joel school board, was delighted with the ruling.

"We are glad it was the same judge, which should not leave any doubt as to the constitutionality of this law," he said.

Bill Pape, a spokesman for the school boards' group, said late last week that the association was considering whether to appeal.

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