July 24, 2024
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July 24, 2024
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In an effort to head off a “very dangerous development” of the state overstepping its legal authority in regulating what Orthodox yeshivas teach, a broad coalition of religious rights groups and yeshivas have filed suit against the New York State education leaders.

The 48-page suit, filed on October 9, in state Supreme Court in Albany, alleges that the regulations violate state laws as well as both the state and federal constitutions, including First Amendment violations of the right to free exercise of religion and speech by forcing “invasive, secular oversight of religious instruction and teachers, and the Fourteenth Amendment right to due process and equal protection.”

The suit, filed against Board of Regents Chancellor Lester Young, Jr. and Commissioner Betty A. Rosa of the New York State Education Department (NYSED), asks that the state be blocked from enforcing the new regulations because “they are contrary to law, arbitrary and capricious, and an abuse of discretion.”

“We’re facing a sea of change in the way the government acts with the community and specifically private schools and the yeshiva community,” said Agudath Israel of America Executive Vice President Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, adding this “radical way” of dealing with the schools has alarmed the community.

“We feel threatened that this is the end of the autonomy over our yeshivas and of our independence,” said Rabbi Zwiebel in a phone interview with The Jewish Link.

“Parents choose yeshiva education for their children, despite their substantial tuition payments, instead of the local public schools because they want their children to have an education that is rooted in Jewish texts and informed by Jewish morality, history, culture, values, ideals and hopes,” reads the suit. “Above all, the parents of yeshiva students hope that their children grow into fully fledged and thoughtful citizens, while sustaining and upholding their culture and their religious beliefs, values and traditions.”

The suit alleges the regulations would force the yeshivas to substantially revise their curriculum and alter their emphasis on Jewish studies. There are currently more than 170,000 enrolled in approximately 450 yeshivas in New York State.

Along with Agudath Israel other parties to the suit are: Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools (PEARLS); Torah Umesorah; Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem, Manhattan; Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, Staten Island; and Mesivta Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin, Yeshiva Torah Vodaath and Yeshiva Ch’san Sofer-The Solomon Kluger School, all in Brooklyn.

“For the government to decide what needs to be taught we think is a dangerous development,” said Rabbi Zwiebel of the regulations passed last month by the New York Board of Regents requiring all private schools to prove that they are providing a secular education “at least substantially equivalent” to those offered in public schools.

Under the new guidelines there are various methods that can be used to prove they meet the new requirements, including having a high school offering Regents exams, receiving accreditation from an approved accreditation body or state-approved assessments to show academic progress.

Rabbi Zwiebel noted the mandated 60-day public comment period after the new regulations were proposed in March generated about 350,000 letters, many from the yeshiva community in opposition, and questioned whether there was “a genuine effort” by the state to take their concerns into account since there was no substantive changes made before last month’s vote.

“Unless the Court enters a stay prohibiting the NYSED from implementing and enforcing the new regulations, petitioners will suffer irreparable harm,” according to the filing. “The new regulations require yeshivas to transform the nature and content of the instruction they provide, thereby frustrating their religious mission, and would alter and limit the choices made by parents to direct the education of their children.”

The suit states that this lack of substantive revision is a violation of the state Administrative Procedures Act, labeling the entire process “a sham.”

The suit also alleges nonpublic schools were placed into two separate tiers, one of which was excused from the “burdensome” review process. However, the other tier consists almost exclusively of Orthodox yeshivas.

It notes that only yeshivas would be inspected for instruction in more than 20 different subject areas and only yeshivas would be prohibited from offering instruction in those subjects in a student’s home language, although home language is offered “and indeed lauded” in similarly situated public schools. The move appears to target Yiddish instruction in Hasidic schools.

The suit states requirements that yeshivas offer instruction in more than 20 different subject areas compels certain speech, which places a burden on free speech by effectively restricting the amount of religious instruction that yeshivas can provide to their students.

Yeshivas also would be scrutinized regarding instruction in numerous non-core subject areas such as patriotism and citizenship, the history, meaning, significance and effect of the provisions of the Constitution of the State of New York and instruction in hands-only cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

In blunt language the suit states: “That yeshivas are the target of the new regulations is beyond dispute.”

The court documents point out that the schools involved are the original Orthodox day schools, all between 100 and 125 years old, and have operated continuously since “substantially equivalent” standards first appeared in the Education Law in 1894. They have produced “tens of thousands” of graduates who have succeeded in virtually every professional field, including the rabbinate and as Orthodox leaders, and are interwoven into American society.

It cited other court decisions that it contends support its position, including a Court of Appeals ruling that found that the substantial equivalence standard didn’t authorize NYSED to issue detailed regulations concerning the curriculum, course offerings and teacher qualifications at private schools.

Rabbi Zwiebel said for now he doesn’t anticipate any yeshivas making substantive changes in their curriculum, although that would be a decision left up to each school, but added: “The way these regulations are being handled is very troubling and ultimately there are substantive legal questions that must answered before anything is implemented.”

By Debra Rubin

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