Originally created 07/11/98

Appeals court again knocks down school district for Orthodox Jews



ALBANY, N.Y. -- A state appeals court has upheld a ruling declaring unconstitutional the state's third law creating a special school district for the handicapped children of a Hasidic Jewish sect.

The two earlier laws also were thrown out by the courts.

The battle over the first such law creating the Kiryas Joel school district in Orange County, about 45 miles north of New York City, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. On Thursday, the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court ruled 5-0 against the latest version of the law.

The challenge against the special school district, like the two earlier lawsuits, was brought by officials of the state School Boards Associations. All three cases centered on the church-state separation issue.

"The new statute lacks the neutrality toward religion mandated by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution," the Appellate Division said in its ruling Thursday.

Nathan Lewin, a lawyer for the Kiryas Joel school district, said he expected to ask New York's Court of Appeals, the state's top tribunal, to hear an appeal of Thursday's ruling.

Last year, the nation's highest court, by a 5-4 vote, reversed its own 1985 ruling that had made it illegal for school districts to send teachers into parochial schools to provide remedial education. It was that 1985 ruling that, in part, eventually led to the Kiryas Joel controversy.

Leaders of the ultra-conservative Satmar Hasidic sect say its disabled children do not learn well in non-Hasidic schools. By creating a special district, the community can control the special education of its students and the $3 million in state aid it qualifies for each year.

In 1989, the state Legislature, with the approval of then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, had created the special district at the urging of the Satmar sect. In 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld state court decisions and ruled the New York law unconstitutional.

That same year, Cuomo and the Legislature passed Kiryas Joel II, claiming it was broader in scope and could apply to more communities. The New York Court of Appeals ruled against that law in 1997.

The Legislature, with the backing of Gov. George Pataki, tried a third time. Pataki initially claimed the new version applied to 10 communities across the state, an estimate his aides quickly revised to six. The court on Thursday said evidence indicated the law probably applied to two communities.