WASHINGTON (Nov. 29)
The Supreme Court has agreed to decide the fate of a New York school district set up for disabled Chasidic children that has been called unconstitutional.
The high court said Monday that it would review a July decision by the New York Court of Appeals. The appeals court had ruled that the state legislature’s formation of the district was unconstitutional because it violates the separation between church and state.
“Now there is the chance that the Supreme Court will restore for the handicapped children the services that they are entitled to,” said David Zwiebel, general counsel of the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel.
But the case may have broader significance than aid to a New York school district.
It may provide an opportunity for the court to re-examine the legal standard it has used for over two decades to decide how far the government may go in accommodating religious needs without breeching the constitutional divide between church and state.
Formed by the New York State Legislature in 1989, the school district provides services to emotionally and physically disabled children in the Orange County village of Kiryas Joel, where most of the residents are Satmar Chasidim.
Nearly all of the 220 students attending the school, which opened in 1990, are Chasidic.
The legislature acted in response to Chasidic parents who believed they could not send their disabled children to religious schools in the area because of inadequate facilities, or to public schools because of religious and cultural differences.
The lawsuit was originally brought by two taxpayers.
‘A GOOD-FAITH EFFORT’
The appeals court ruled in July, in Grumet vs. Board of Education of the Kiryas Joel School District, that the formation of the school district “inescapably conveys a message of governmental endorsement of religion.”
The school district argued that no such message was sent because the subject matter taught at the school is entirely secular.
New York state joined the school district in appealing the case to the Supreme Court.
Gov. Mario Cuomo said Monday in New York that “when I signed the legislation in 1989 creating this special school district, I did so because I believed it was a good-faith effort to solve a unique problem of providing secular education for special needs children.”
“I’m pleased that the Supreme Court has taken the case,” said Nathan Lewin, attorney for the school district.
“State laws should not be invalidated because they in some indirect way assist in religious practice,” he said.
Lewin said the Supreme Court signaled in July it was interested in the matter when it allowed the district to continue operating during the appeal process.
Several mainstream Jewish organizations disagreed with the Orthodox community and had applauded the lower court’s decision as strengthening the separation of church and state.