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SPECIAL SCHOOL DISTRICT RULED UNCONSTITUTIONAL

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New York violated the required separation of church and state when lawmakers created a special public school district for a community of Hasidic Jews, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The creation of the Kiryas Joel school district for disabled children violates the Constitution's ban on government establishment of religion, the court said in a 6-3 ruling."We do not deny that the Constitution allows the state to accomodate religious needs by allieviating special burdens," Justice David H. Souter wrote for the court. However, he wrote, "accomodation is not a principle without limits."

"It is clear that neutrality as among religions must be honored," he said, adding that the creation of the Kiryas Joel district "fails the test of neutrality" because it "singles out a particular religious sect for special treatment."

Monday's decision affirmed a ruling by New York's highest court, which said the special school district unconstitutionally created a "symbolic union" between the government and the Satmar Hasidic sect.

The Constitution's First Amendment says: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free excercise thereof."

Lawyers for the school district argued that state lawmakers, in establishing the district, were simply accomodating the Hasidic Jews' right to religious freedom.

The Supreme Court had allowed the Kiryas Joel district to keep operating until the justices issued their ruling. The district is in Orange County, about 40 miles north of New York City.

"We are pleased that the Supreme Court has uphelf the 200-year-old separation of church and state," said Louis Grumet, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, which brought the lawsuit.

Abraham Wieder, president of the Kiryas Joel Board of Education, said in a statement, "We have no choice but to continue our search for a suitable way to provide a quality education for the most vulnerable of our children. The Supreme Court decision is a setback, not the end of this most important pursuit."

Monday's decision made little mention of the high court's 1971 landmark test for interpreting the separation of church and state, although Sandra Day O'Connor wrote separately that "the slide away (from using the test) is well under way."

The test says government actions are unconstitutional if they have a religious purpose, primarily advance or promote religion or excessively entangle government and religion.

The court has used the 1971 test in deciding many church-state issues, such as what type of government aid can be given to parochial schools.

New York lawmakers created the Kiryas Joel 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 where girls and boys are educated separately. At the public school, about 60 full-time disabled students and 140 part-time students are educated in mixed classes of boys and girls.

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Addtional Information

Other Supreme Court action

-Rejected the appeal of a Maryland ventriloquist, Arthur Takeall, who says Diet Pepsi commercials stole part of his act by using the slogan, "You Got the Right One, Baby, Uh-huh."

- Ordered a three-judge federal court to reconsider its decision that an oddly shaped, black-majority congressional district in Louisiana was the product of unlawful "racial gerrymandering."

- Turned down Los Angeles' appeal to reinstate its policy of granting exclusive cable television franchises for each area of the city. Lower courts said the policy violates the Constitution's free-speech guarantee.

- Left intact a ruling in a Puerto Rico newspaper case that lets relatives of public officials sue over the emotional distress they say they suffered from allegedly libelous news stories about the officials.