By Charisma L. Miller, Esq.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
A New York Orthodox Jewish village, Kiryas Joel, has agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) challenging a public park’s rules promoting sex segregation. Brooklyn Councilmember David Greenfield told Gothomist.com that the suit was "picking on these Hasidic Jews."
A public park catering to members of Satmar Hasidic in the Village of Kiryas Joel opened in 2012 and was allegedly created with the purpose of promoting and enforcing segregation based on sex. According to reports, women were confined to areas of the park with red benches, slides and jungle gyms, while males were confined to areas of the park with blue equipment. Further documents reveal separate walking paths reinforced the segregation.
Concerned that public monies were being utilized to further discrimination, the NYCLU and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed repeated Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests for documents relating to the park. The Village denied the FOIL request causing the civil liberties organizations, in December 2013, to file suit against the Village as a means of compelling document disclosure in accordance with FOIL.
Aside from the denial of FOIL requests, the NYCLU’s interest in the park was the alleged confluence of public funds and the promotion of religious ideals. The Bill of Rights expressly grants a freedom of religion which allows individuals to freely practice their religion without intrusion from the government and, in the alternative, prevents the government from promoting one religion over another. In accordance to the Bill of Rights, the Satmar Hasidic sect, which imposes, on religious grounds, a separation of the gender, may do so, however no such discrimination or segregation can occur on public grounds with the use of public monies.
An attorney for the Village, Donald Nichol, informed the NYCLU and ACLU, via letter, that the Village did not have a policy of “endorsing…illegal segregation on the basis of sex in public places or programs.” This statement was made in direct contradiction to news reports.
In anticipation for the new park, an Orthodox online newspaper, BHOLWorld, excitingly described the Village’s 283-acre park to possess “full separation between the boys' compound to girls' compound.” Further, the online paper reported that the park was able to come to fruition due to “special financing obtained by Mayor Rabbi Abraham Wieder.” Further, Village officials have spoken publically about the park’s gender segregation. According to BHOLWorld, Village leaders said: "It is time that the city which was founded according to the regulations and directives of the Rebbe the Divrei Yoel of Satmar zt"l, will enjoy a magnificent and giant park for the welfare of the residents alongside insistence on the essential spiritual aspects.”
This apparent unconstitutional fusion of government and religion forced the Village to settle with the civil liberties unions. After eventually complying with the FOIL requests, the Village agreed to desegregate its park.
“We cannot allow religion to be used as a shield for government-sponsored segregation,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.