Wednesday, October 30, 2019
The blue bus may have made its final run in South Blooming Grove.
Orange County Supreme Court Justice Elaine Slobod ordered on Monday that Derech Emunah cannot operate a commercial, for-profit bus service throughout the village without a valid permit. A status conference is set for 9:15 a.m. Nov. 19.
John McGowan, the attorney representing the village, called the ruling "a victory for the equal application of the laws."
"The village expects the bus company to comply with the applicable law now determined by the Supreme Court," McGowan said.
"As village mayor, I have always applied the village laws equally to everyone at all times. I will continue to do so in the future, since being fair to all is the only way forward for the future of our village," South Blooming Grove Mayor James LoFranco said.
The bus, colored blue, caters to Hasidic women in South Blooming Grove, who are forbidden by their religious customs to drive and would otherwise take taxis or other hired services to Kiryas Joel to shop and for various other reasons.
The village issued a 90-day permit to the bus company on Jan. 3, with a set of conditions. They included a sole driver, Yoel Oberlander; use of one bus with a 28-passenger capacity; a limit of five runs per day between specified times on specific routes; and other rules. Over the next month, the permit was revoked, reinstated, then expired. The village sued Emunah in Orange County court Feb. 11; in April, the village withdrew its initial lawsuit and filed a new one – against Emunah, Oberlander, substitute drive Samuel Deutch, and "John and Jane Does 1-10" - to make the bus comply with village laws. Since then, decisions and counterclaims were made while the bus still chugged around the village.
On July 31, Slobod ruled that the bus service could only operate if it applied for a new permit within 20 days. On Aug. 26 – a week late – Emunah representative Yitchok Ekstein applied for the permit. On Sept. 3, Emunah followed up with a counterclaim to the lawsuit, alleging religious discrimination and unsuccessfully seeking $300,000 in damages. Then the Village Board approved a three-page resolution denying the permit application at its Sept. 23 meeting.
Calls and emails to the defendants' lawyer, Michael Sussman, were not returned.
On Oct. 11, the defendants filed a motion asking the court to clarify the July 31 decision. Ekstein filed an affidavit alongside that motion, alleging that the lack of busing was causing a hardship to its riders. In his affidavit, Ekstein says "some of the riders are students attending school in Kiryas Joel." However, state law directs that public school districts must provide transportation to students within its boundaries who attend private or parochial schools within 15 miles of the district, according to Paul Nienstadt, assistant superintendent of operations and safety for Washingtonville school district, which serves South Blooming Grove. Nienstadt said the district contracts with Quality Bus for that transportation, and that he'd never heard of Emunah.
On Monday, in a one-page decision, Slobod ordered, "If the village has denied the defendants' application to operate a bus service in the village, then under the terms of the Court's July 31, 2019 decision and order, the defendants are now preliminarily enjoined from doing so."
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