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The High Court of Justice will hear a petition Monday against sex-segregated public buses known as mehadrin lines, which are meant to serve the ultra-Orthodox community.

Orthodox American-Israeli novelist Naomi Ragen and the Israel Religious Action Center, the advocacy arm of Israel's Reform movement, brought the petition a year ago in a bid to sharply reduce the operation of sex-segregated buses and prevent men and women from being forced to sit separately.

The state argues that the segregation - with men sitting in front and women in back - is voluntary and that the companies operating the mehadrin lines "are prohibited from forcing the voluntary arrangement on the rest of the passengers who are not interested in it.

"There is no reason for the Transportation Ministry to get involved, as long as each person maintains a right to use those lines without being coerced by these arrangements," the state said. "A suitable arrangement is based on the assumption that there should not be a coerced segregation arrangement in public transit, but there is no obstacle to allowing the passengers to have voluntary separation between the sexes."

In practice, however, passengers have complained that they feel coerced - sometimes by physical violence - into sitting in the designated section of the bus.

Ragen decided to file suit after unintentionally boarding a mehadrin line, Egged's No. 40 bus, toward her home in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramot in July 2004. "I found myself insulted, humiliated and physically threatened because I refused to be bullied into giving up my seat and moving to the back of the bus," Ragen wrote.

In addition, Miriam Shear, an Israeli-American woman on vacation from Canada, says she was slapped, kicked, punched and pushed by a group of ultra-Orthodox men in November 2006 when she refused to move to the back of Egged bus No. 2 on its way to the Western Wall.

"This phenomenon [of sex segregation] impinges upon equality and causes degradation and damage to human dignity," said IRAC attorney Einat Hurvitz. "Since the government is not prepared to settle the matter, the court must intervene."

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