NEW YORK – Should boys be restricted to playing on blue slides and girls on red jungle gyms? Not according to the American Civil Liberties Union and its New York affiliate, the NYCLU, which filed a lawsuit last week challenging a Satmar Hasidic enclave’s refusal to disclose public records about a gender-segregated playground in Kiryas Joel, located in New York's Orange County.
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The 283-acre park at issue is divided into four sections: one with blue playground equipment, for boys only; one for girls, with pink and red equipment; and similarly color-coded playgrounds meant for children under 5 years old and their adult caretakers, according to the complaint filed in the Orange County Supreme Court.
"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, in a press release on the lawsuit. “We cannot allow religion to be used as a shield for government-sponsored segregation.”
Despite this, the lawsuit is not actually about the park's legality; it is about Kiryas Joel's non-compliance with requests for more information filed last July by the NYCLU under New York State’s Freedom of Information Law.
The NYCLU was trying to ascertain details about the construction and operation of the playgrounds, as well as their ownership and financing. As part of their request, the NYCLU and ACLU submitted news articles in which Kiryas Joel officials acknowledged both the existence of the park and the fact that it was supervised by a "modesty committee."
But Kiryas Joel leaders responded to the request by denying that the park exists, Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU, told Haaretz. Kiryas Joel officials also denied the existence of the modesty committee.
“Whatever the religious principles motivating the playgrounds, it’s entirely unacceptable in a public facility to have separate sections for boys and girls,” Lieberman said in an interview. “In order to find out what’s really going on we need access to the relevant records. But they’ve stonewalled us. We’ve gone to court in order to get the information that the public is entitled to.”
'We don't have the facts'
In April, Haredi news site Behadrey Haredim reported that the park was created with “special funding” obtained by Mayor Abraham Wieder. It also reported that the color-coded areas are separated by hills, and quoted Kiryas Joel official Gedalia Segedin as saying they “form a modesty buffer and allow the place to remain completely pure.”
Segedin also was quoted as saying that “foreigners who do not belong to the Orthodox stream, are not allowed to work out and the site is reserved for locals only." The article also says signs in Yiddish indicate areas designated for "fathers who come with their children" and "mothers who come with their children."
Multiple phone messages left for Wieder, both at the village hall and his company, were not returned, nor were those left for Segedin at his village hall office and home, those left for the deputy village administrator and for Dan Nichols, Kiryas Joel’s attorney.
Nichols did reply with an e-mail, saying he has not yet reviewed any lawsuit. He forwarded a letter, dated August 9, 2013, which was addressed to the NYCLU in response to its request for information. “The village has no gender-segregated public park…thus the Village has no information concerning such a facility…," he wrote. "The Village has never enforced any segregation of any type or kind…the Village is not aware of any ‘Committee of Modesty of Kiryas Joel.’ Your intimation that the Village practices any form of segregation may be defamatory and should be promptly discontinued.”
New York State did grant Kiryas Joel $195,000 toward the construction of a park in 2001, but several years later village officials said they canceled those plans and gave up the money so as not to have to allow outside regulation of who may or may not use the park, according to an article in the Times Herald Record, an Orange County, N.Y., newspaper. That same newspaper ran an article in March 2012 about construction beginning on the playground that is the focus of the current lawsuit.
The NYCLU’s Lieberman said that whether the gender-segregated playground was created with taxpayer money or not, “there are discrimination laws that apply to public accommodations even if they are privately owned.” If, however, government funds were used toward the Kiryas Joel park's construction, “then it would be official discrimination.”
“Discussing the legality of these gender-segregated playgrounds is difficult when we don’t have the facts, and we don’t have the facts because the town has chosen to hide them from the public,” Lieberman said. “Whether it’s a subterfuge for sex discrimination, for religious discrimination or to impose religious activities on a government service or something else,” it would be illegal, she said.
Kiryas Joel has been at the center of several previous lawsuits over everything from the legality of its public school district to its construction of a water pipeline that opponents say is being unlawfully created. According to the NYCLU, a 1994 Supreme Court ruling cited an unconstitutional “fusion of governmental and religious functions” in Kiryas Joel and, in 1986, a federal court struck down a village policy that prevented women from driving school buses there.
The village, created in the 1970s on a site selected by Satmar Grand Rebbe Joel Teitelbaum before he died, was designated the U.S.'s poorest municipality in the 2008 census, which indicated that about 70 percent of the village’s 21,000 residents lived below the federal poverty line.