Law & Courts

High Court Issues Stay in Long-Running Kiryas Joel Dispute

By Mark Walsh — July 14, 1999 5 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court has temporarily blocked a New York state court ruling that struck down a state law authorizing the Hasidic Jewish village of Kiryas Joel to maintain its own public school district to serve children with disabilities.

The high court’s issuance of a stay last month in Pataki v. Grumet (Case No. 98-1932) might signal the justices’ willingness to take a new look at the continuing legal controversy over the Kiryas Joel district.

Separately, during the last days of its 1998-99 term last month, the court declined to review the appeal of a church group whose request to use a school for weekend religious services was turned down by a New York City subdistrict. And it ordered a new round of oral arguments in a case from Louisiana involving school board redistricting under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In the Kiryas Joel case, the Supreme Court ruled in 1994 that a New York state law establishing a school district for the community of Satmar Hasidic Jews was a form of “religious favoritism” that violated the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against government establishment of religion.

The 1989 state law at issue in the case of Board of Education of the Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet had been geared specifically to the Hasidic village about 50 miles northwest of New York City.

Most of the village’s 5,000 children attend private yeshivas. The public school district was created to address the needs of about 200 students with serious disabilities.

Struggling for Neutrality

Since the Supreme Court’s ruling five years ago, the New York legislature has struggled to aid the village by enacting a neutral law that would allow for the formation of a school district in Kiryas Joel and a small number of other communities in the state.

Two such laws have been struck down by the state courts. Most recently, the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, overturned a 1997 law that authorized municipalities to form their own school districts if they met certain enrollment and population criteria.

The court ruled in May that the law potentially benefits only two of the state’s 1,545 municipalities, including Kiryas Joel.

“The non-neutral effect of the statute is to secure for one religious community a unique and significant benefit--a ‘public school’ where all the students adhere to the tenets of a particular religion--unavailable to other similarly situated communities,” the state high court said in a 4-3 ruling.

The ruling meant a possible dismantling of the village district by this summer. But Republican Gov. George E. Pataki, joined by the Kiryas Joel district and the surrounding Monroe-Woodbury district, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court for a stay of the state court’s ruling.

On June 21, the high court granted the stay, delaying the effect of the New York Court of Appeals’ ruling until the justices decide whether to give full consideration to the Kiryas Joel case during their next term.

In their appeal, Gov. Pataki and the school districts argue that the latest law authorizing a district for Kiryas Joel met the test described in concurring opinions by Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony M. Kennedy in the 1994 Supreme Court case. The two justices went along with striking down the 1989 law that was tailored to the village of Kiryas Joel, but they said a generally applicable statute that employed neutral educational criteria for authorizing the formation of a district would not violate the Constitution.

The justices will likely decide sometime early this fall whether to grant a full review of the Kiryas Joel case.

Church Services

On June 24, the high court declined without comment to hear the appeal of a church based in Far Rockaway, N.Y., that had sued in federal court after a subdistrict of the New York City school system refused to let it rent a school for Sunday worship services.

The Full Gospel Tabernacle was represented by the American Center for Law and Justice, a legal organization formed by the religious broadcaster Pat Robertson. The church argued that the refusal by Community School District 27 in the borough of Queens to rent out a school for weekend services was a violation of its constitutional rights to free speech and free exercise of religion.

The subdistrict rented out its buildings to various other community groups, including the American Legion, labor unions, and religious groups that used the facilities for musical performances. But the district’s rules barred religious services in its facilities.

Both a federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, based in New York, ruled for the school district. The district court held that a public school is a limited public forum under the First Amendment and that the district was not required to make its facilities available to all groups.

In its appeal in Full Gospel Tabernacle v. Community School District 27 (No. 98-1714), the ACLJ argued that under the district’s policy, groups renting space in schools “may sing religious hymns for musical entertainment, but not for the worship of God. They may hold ceremonies to honor the mayor, but not the Maker. Such blatant anti-religious discrimination violates the U.S. Constitution.”

Voting-Rights Case

In an action not seen at the Supreme Court since 1991, the justices ordered the case of Reno v. Bossier Parish School Board (No. 98-405) restored to its docket for reargument this fall.

The court was apparently unable to reach a decision in a case that was among the last of the term to be argued. But it likely wasn’t a lack of time that prevented a decision, but the subject matter.

The case involves a school district’s compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The 19,000-student Bossier Parish district in northwest Louisiana has been battling for years to win federal approval of its 1992 redistricting plan.

The district is a covered jurisdiction under Section 5 of the voting-rights law, meaning it must win approval from the U.S. Department of Justice or the federal district court in Washington for any change in voting procedures, including redistricting plans.

As of 1992, the district had never elected a black school board member. The Justice Department sought to require the district to adopt a redistricting plan with two majority-black voting districts.

The federal district court in Washington has twice ruled that the school district had legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for adopting a plan with no majority-black districts.

In the most recent appeal, the Justice Department has asked the Supreme Court to decide whether voting districts that are drawn with a discriminatory purpose can be rejected even if they do not leave minority voters worse off than before.

The justices on June 24 ordered the case reargued and asked the parties to file new court papers addressing such issues as whether the Justice Department or the covered jurisdiction bears the burden of proof when a redistricting plan is enacted with a discriminatory but non-retrogressive purpose.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 1999 edition of Education Week as High Court Issues Stay in Long-Running Kiryas Joel Dispute


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