Today, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, through its Institute for Public Affairs, expressed its disappointment with a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court not to review a ruling by New York State’s supreme court declaring the Kiryas Joel school district unconstitutional. The Union’s Institute had joined with other Orthodox Jewish organizations in a friend of the court brief urging the high court to take the case.
The court, by a 6-3 vote, turned away the state’s argument that its third attempt to create a district for disabled children in the Kiryas Joel community does not breach the constitutionally required separation of church and state. Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas voted to hear arguments in the case, but four votes are needed to grant such review. Kiryas Joel is a community of hasidic Orthodox Jews in Orange County, about 45 miles northwest of New York City. State lawmakers first created a Kiryas Joel school district in 1989 after village residents withdrew their disabled children from other public schools, saying they were traumatized by having to attend class outside the village. Children who are not disabled attend private religious schools in the village. The New York State School Boards Association challenged the creation of the public school district, saying it unconstitutionally advanced the Satmar religion. The nation’s highest court agreed in 1994, ruling that creation of the Kiryas Joel district “fails the test of neutrality” because it “singles out a particular religious sect for special treatment.” New York legislators passed a new law that year, again allowing creation of a Kiryas Joel district, but it was thrown out by the state’s highest court. A third law, enacted in 1997, sought to set neutral criteria under which a Kiryas Joel district could be established. But New York’s highest court invalidated that law last May. In the appeal acted on today, the Orthodox Union and New York State’s lawyers asserted the 1997 law sets “religiously neutral criteria” and “in no way singles out Kiryas Joel for a forbidden religious preference over other similarly situated groups.”
IPA director Nathan Diament stated that “the Orthodox Union’s disappointment stems from the fact that Court failed to take on the argument asserted by Kiryas Joel’s opponents that a law can be unconstitutional simply because a community of religious believers benefits from it. This can’t be what the Constitution stands for. We hope we will find an opportunity to correct and clarify this message very soon.”