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Ruling on Kiryas Joel Prompts Jewish Dismay, Jewish Praise

To those in the Jewish community involved in the Kiryas Joel lawsuit, the decision handed down this week is less about the vagaries of legal interpretation than about the role of religion in public life.

The Appellate Division of the New York state Supreme Court on Monday declared that a special school district in Kiryas Joel, a village that was created by Satmar Chasidim in Orange County, N.Y., is unconstitutional.

The court said the district violates the First Amendment’s prohibition against the establishment of religion.

For these Jews who opposed the school district, which was created specially to serve the interests of the Satmar community, the decision “recognizes that the constitutional principle that government and religion remain separate is too important to be covered by legislative fig leaves,” Marc Stern, who represents the American Jewish Congress, said in a statement.

In the view of those who support the Satmar community in the matter, the case makes clear that some people are treated unfairly simply because they are Chasidic.

The reasoning behind all of the cases “attacking Kiryas Joel is that Chasidim cannot be trusted to teach only secular subjects,” said Dennis Rapps, executive director and general counsel for the National Commission on Law and Public Affairs, a group of attorneys who represent Orthodox interests in legal matters.

“It’s against the law to teach religion in public school and if they do it, they should be sanctioned, but you can’t do it in advance,” said Rapps.

“This is America. You can’t disqualify someone” from running a school district “because he’s a member of a religious sect,” Rapps said. But “when it comes to Chasidim, all the rules change.”

Because the attorney representing Kiryas Joel has vowed to appeal the decision, the conflict, which began in 1989, seems far from over.

Once an appeal is filed, the school district, which serves a dozen seriously handicapped and about 250 learning disabled Satmar children, will be able to go on with business as usual until the case is considered yet again.

The public school district was created in 1994 by the New York state Legislature and then-Gov. Mario Cuomo after a U.S. Supreme Court decision earlier that year termed unconstitutional a 1989 law setting up the school district and identifying it by name.

In this week’s decision, the court termed the 1994 law creating the public school district a “subterfuge” and a “camouflage” because the demographic criteria it required were designed to benefit only Kiryas Joel’s Satmar community.

Kiryas Joel was incorporated several years ago as a village. Its entire population of 12,000 is Satmar Chasidim, whose community is largely based in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, N.Y.

The Satmar community’s disabled children used to attend the yeshivas where the rest of the village’s youngsters study. They received state-funded special instruction until a 1985 U.S. Supreme Court ruling prevented public school teachers from working in parochial schools.

That ruling led many of the handicapped students to begin attending public school in the Monroe-Woodbury district in the town next door. But some of their parents said their children were taunted because they spoke Yiddish, wore peyos and clothes in a style unique to the Chasidim.

The concern of the parents led to the 1989 law, which created a special school district for the Satmars’ benefit. The law, in turn, prompted Louis Grumet, the executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, to file a lawsuit challenging it.

Jewish organizations lined up behind each side as that case wended its way through the lower courts and ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

The AJCongress has supported the plaintiff since the first suit was filed and hailed this week’s decision.

“This school district would have set a terrible precedent,” Stern, co-director of the AJCongress’ Commission on Law and Social Action, said in an interview.

“Different people want different things from public schools, and some of those things are religious things.

“Instead of having a public school system which brings people into contact with each other, you’d have a series of sectarian units.

“We don’t draw religious lines in public bodies and that’s been wonderful for Jews. This district does exactly that,” said Stern.

But Jewish supporters of Kiryas Joel in this case took a very different view of the ruling.

Those supporting the Kiryas Joel school district included the Orthodox Union, the National Council of Young Israel and Agudath Israel of America, groups which represent Orthodox Jews.

Nathan Diament, the newly named director of the O.U.’s Institute for Public Affairs, said the ruling is “another example of how the First Amendment has come to be viewed in some quarters as a mandate to prevent state and federal governments from accommodating America’s religious citizens in any manner.

“The First Amendment was designed to promote religious liberty, not to be used as a tool to prevent religious citizens from enjoying religious liberty.”

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