Lawyer seeks worshipers’ help in East Ramapo schools case

Originally published: August 12, 2012 6:50 PM

Updated: August 12, 2012 7:29 PM

By MEGHAN E. MURPHY  meghan.murphy@cablevision.com Photo credit: Meghan E. Murphy | Arthur Schwartz, lead attorney for Advocates for Justice, speaks at the French Speaking Baptist Church in Spring Valley about the lawsuit his firm has filed on behalf of 167 plaintiffs against past and current Orthodox Jewish members of the East Ramapo school board, claiming that they siphoned public money to pay for private religious education expenses. (Aug. 12,2012) Schwartz, a parent of four and an observant Jew, began his speech by placing a yarmulke on his head, explaining to the Baptist congregation that it’s a sign of respect for a holy place.Only Richard Stone, one of the 12 defendants, returned a call for comment last week. He called the claims baseless and alleged the main actors held religious prejudices.

“This faith is at the center of this lawsuit,” Schwartz said.

The defendants in the lawsuit are Orthodox Jews from a community where most of the children attend private religious schools. The case uses state agency reviews of the district and public documents to allege that the defendants violated the constitutional separation of church and state through a number of actions, including purchasing religious textbooks and inappropriately placing children with disabilities in private schools.

“Our government is not supposed to promote, oppress or favor any one religion,” Schwartz said. “These taxes are supposed to support education.”

The public school has seen significant cuts to programming and staff, including a cut to full-day kindergarten for the upcoming school year, a move that prompted parents to protest. Schwartz asked more community members to sign on to the lawsuit or donate to the cause.

“Many of you here have been on the verge of giving up,” Schwartz said. “It is time to wake up the people of Spring Valley.”

After the speech, those affected by the school cuts were asked to stand. Almost a third of the congregation — parents, students, alumni — rose.

“We have a lot of kids here who go to the school district. They’re distraught,” Fara Saint Fleur of Spring Valley, said after the service. “This is definitely going to be encouraging and keep hope alive.”

Michel said he welcomed Schwartz into the church to share information with the community members, who are very concerned about the education cuts.

“Every day, parents come to me and they complain about the schools eliminating programs: marching band, after-school programs and kindergarten,” Michel said.

He added that the challenge to the school board is not about religion but about fairness. “It’s the way they manage the money. They have to do it the proper way,” Michel said.

Stone did not return a call for additional comment Sunday. East Ramapo School Board President Daniel Schwartz said he has not been served with the lawsuit and declined to comment. Schools Superintendent Joel Klein could not be reached.

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