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First Amendment suit filed in Lawrence school closure

Parents of public school children in the Lawrence School District filed a federal civil rights suit against the district Tuesday claiming the Orthodox Jewish majority on the school board have violated the First Amendment rights of parents and their children.

The parents say in a suit filed in the Eastern District of New York that the board of education has "unlawfully made laws and public policies regarding the establishment of religion," according to court papers.

One major issue is the board's March 2009 decision to close school Number 6 in Woodmere, the newest and considered in the best physical condition. It is the only elementary school with grass fields, the only handicapped-accessible elementary school and occupies the largest parcel of any of the schools, according to the plaintiffs' attorney, Rob Agostisi of Garden City.

He said the district's own consultant expressed shock that the board would shut the district's best school, and further suggested that the decision was based on the school's high resale value, instead of educational considerations.

"It is now widely speculated that the board, consisting now of six out of seven Orthodox Jews who educate their own children in yeshivas, plan to sell or lease School Number 6 to a yeshiva," Agostisi said in a statement. "Regardless of whether this happens, it is widely speculated that the board is set to use the sale proceeds to sponsor tax breaks to aid Orthodox families in paying yeshiva tuition."

However, Albert D'Agostino, the attorney representing the Lawrence district, noted that the court denied a temporary restraining order requested by the plaintiffs Tuesday to keep the school open.

The court said they had "little likelihood of success on the merits" of the case, D'Agostino said.

He said the district "absolutely did not" violate the First Amendment rights of the public school parents.

And, "there are no plans at this point with respect to the disposition of that school," D'Agostino said. "There is a process that has to be gone through before any determination is made and the public will not only be aware, but they will participate in that process."

He said no decision has been made on whether the school will be sold but it is "doubtful" it would remain open.

An Aug. 18 court date is set to determine whether a preliminary injunction to keep it from being sold will be granted.

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