N.Y. Court Strikes Down Kiryas Joel Schools Law

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The establishment of a New York school district to serve children with disabilities in a village of Orthodox Jews was unanimously struck down last week by the state's highest court.

It was the second time the New York Court of Appeals has rejected a law creating a Kiryas Joel village district. The first such ruling was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which found in 1994 that New York lawmakers had violated the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against government establishment of religion by creating a school district for a religious sect. ("Court Strikes District for Hasidic Sect," July 13, 1994.)

After the Supreme Court ruling, state legislators wrote a new law authorizing a district for the village of Kiryas Joel, a community of Satmar Hasidic Jews about 50 miles northwest of New York City. Most children in the village attend religious schools. The public school district was created to serve children with disabilities because Hasidic parents were reluctant to send such children to public schools in neighboring communities.

The legislature took its lead from a concurring opinion by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor suggesting that a general state law allowing certain villages to create their own school districts might pass muster under the Constitution.

'Impermissible Endorsement'

However, the new law was challenged once again by officials of the New York State School Boards Association. They argued that provisions of the law are so detailed as to make Kiryas Joel the only municipality out of more than 1,500 in the state eligible to create its own school district.

In its May 6 ruling in Grumet v. Cuomo, the state high court agreed that the new law also violates the U.S. Constitution's establishment clause. The law "effectively conveys a message of impermissible governmental endorsement of the Satmar community of Kiryas Joel," the court said.

Steven Benardo, the superintendent of the Kiryas Joel district, said the school board was considering several options, including appealing the ruling to the Supreme Court again.

"The republic hasn't fallen as a result of the Kiryas Joel school district," he said. "No one says we are doing anything inappropriate. So it is difficult to understand why some people are analyzing us in such microscopic detail."

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Related Stories
Web Resources
  • Read an ACLU Legal Bulletin on the issue of the establishment clause and public schools.
  • Lee v. Weisman. Text of the 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared prayer at public-school graduations to be in violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

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