The New York Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union today filed a lawsuit challenging the village of Kiryas Joel’s refusal to disclose public records about a sex-segregated park.
The park is on 283 acres of unincorporated land and opened in the Satmar Hasidic enclave last year, according to press reports. Media photos show that women and girls are confined to areas of the park with red benches, slides and jungle gyms, while boys and men are confined to areas of the park with blue equipment. Separate walking paths re-enforce the sex-segregation. News reports indicate the park is supervised by the village’s religious leader, the Grand Rebbe, and its Committee on Modesty. Special funding was apparently provided by the village’s mayor.
“Public parks cannot segregate based on sex any more than they can on race or national origin,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “New Yorkers have every right to know if this is happening here and if tax dollars are supporting something so blatantly unlawful.”
In July, the NYCLU and ACLU filed a Freedom of Information request for records pertaining to the purchase, financing, operation and maintenance of the park to determine if the park is indeed segregated and if it was financed with public funds. But that request was denied in August. NYCLU and ACLU attorneys appealed the denial, but the village failed to respond to, or even acknowledge, that request. Under New York law, failure to respond within 10 days constitutes a denial of the appeal.
As part of the public records request, the NYCLU and ACLU submitted news articles in which Kiryas Joel officials acknowledged both the existence of the park and the Committee on Modesty. But village leaders responded to the information request by denying the park exists.
“The Village has no gender-segregated public park,” wrote village attorney Donald Nichol. Village leaders also denied knowledge of any Committee on Modesty, despite prominent signs at the park attesting to the committee’s authority.
“It’s the law for communities to keep basic financial records like the ones we requested,” said NYCLU Attorney Brooke Menschel. “Kiryas Joel’s assertion that such records don’t exist is ludicrous.”
Kiryas Joel has been subject to numerous legal challenges because of the excessive entanglement of religion in all aspects of village life. A 1994 Supreme Court ruling cited an unconstitutional “fusion of governmental and religious functions” in Kiryas Joel. In 1986, a federal court struck down a village policy that prevented women from driving school buses in Kiryas Joel because the policy violated both the Establishment Clause and the Title VII ban on sex discrimination in employment.
“This is the first report of a sex-segregated public park in the United States, so it’s important to learn how the park came to be,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “We cannot allow religion to be used as a shield for government-sponsored segregation.”
Joining Menschel and Mach on the case are Mariko Hirose, Beth Haroules and Christopher Dunn, all of the NYCLU.
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