Mainstream Jewish groups are once again pitted against Satmar Chasidim, this time over a New York Supreme Court ruling that the Kiryas Joel public school district is constitutional.
Satmar leaders of the Orange County, N.Y., village celebrated the court;s March 8 decision, which allows a publicly funded education for 260 disabled children in a school district that is within the village and attended only by Satmar children.
But legal experts at major Jewish organizations expressed disappointment.
The decision by the state’s high court is “terribly misguided,” said Samuel Rabinove, legal director at the American Jewish Committee.
The “sole purpose” of the Satmar school district “is to perpetuate the fusion of governmental and religious authority,” he said. “And that is plainly unconstitutional. We hope this decision will be reversed.”
The court’s decision “encourages subterfuge,” said Marc Stern, co-director of the American Jewish Congress’ legal department, “because it allows lawmakers to pretend that they are designing a statute that is ostensibly religiously neutral but in reality is designed to aid only a particular faith.”
The Kiryas Joel Village School District was created by the New York state Legislature in 1989 to allow Satmar children to remain in the village while continuing to get a publicly financed education. Satmar parents had argued that sending their children for special education at public schools outside their insular community subjected their children to ridicule because they speak and dress differently.
Louis Grumet, the executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, challenged the constitutionality of the school district in the courts.
The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor in June 1994. The law carving out the school district, the court said, was unconstitutional because it violated the separation of church and state.
In response to the Supreme Court’s decision, then – Gov. Mario Cuomo and the New York state Legislature quickly passed a new statute that allowed for the Satmar school district. In order to comply with the Supreme Court’s concerns that the previous law had favored the Jewish district, the new law was carefully worded to allow any group to secede and form a new public school district if it met certain criteria.
Grumet again brought suit, losing the first round last week in the New York high court, which is the state’s lowest full-jurisdiction court. The American Jewish Congress was the only Jewish group to sign onto the case, with a friend- of-the-court brief backing Grumet’s position. It is not yet clear whether Grumet will appeal.