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N.Y. court again rejects law that set up Chasidic schools

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WASHINGTON, May 11 (JTA) — New York state’s highest court has dealt another in a string of defeats to efforts to set up a special school district for a Chasidic community 50 miles north of New York City. The New York Court of Appeals ruled on Tuesday that a 1997 state law that created a special district for Kiryas Joel — a village whose residents are all Satmar Chasidim — violates the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state. The 4-3 ruling marks the third time courts have struck down state legislators’ attempts to carve out an autonomous school district for Kiryas Joel so that the community can control the special education of its students and the $3 million in state aid it qualifies for each year. The dispute began in 1985, when a U.S. Supreme Court ruling barred public school teachers from offering remedial education services in parochial schools. As a result, Kiryas Joel’s disabled students began attending public school in a neighboring town, where many were taunted for speaking Yiddish and wearing Chasidic sidelocks and garb. After parents argued that their children did not learn well in a non-Chasidic setting, New York state enacted a law in 1989 creating a special school district for the Satmars’ benefit. The state School Boards Association, however, opposed the district. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately agreed, issuing a 1994 ruling that ordered the dismantling of the district. Since then, state lawmakers have been attempting to draft new laws to create a school district that can pass constitutional muster. In striking down the latest law, the Court of Appeals ruled that the creation of a special district “has the primary effect of advancing one religion over others and constitutes an impermissible religious accommodation.” The three dissenters on the court, meanwhile, said that the latest law had removed the constitutional problems of earlier versions. It remained unclear whether the Kiryas Joel school district would appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. Nathan Lewin, the district’s lawyer, was unavailable for comment. The American Jewish Congress said the ruling sends a clear message to supporters of the district that its efforts are unconstitutional. “I would think now that the time has come to bring this all to a close,” said Marc Stern, co-director of the AJCongress’ legal department. “I think it’s reasonable to assume that the needs of the students ought to take priority at this point.” Students’ special education needs could be accommodated, he added, if the state implemented a 1997 Supreme Court decision that reversed the court’s 1985 ruling and again permits public school teachers to offer secular remedial education on the premises of religious schools.

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