A group of parents from Petah Tikva petitioned the High Court of Justice on Monday against an Education Ministry decision to separate between boys and girls in the "Morasha" religious elementary school.
The parents' representative, Dr. Aviad Hacohen, dean of the Shaarei Mishpat College, argued that "this is a serious infringement of freedom of religion and conscience." The court is expected to discuss the case on Thursday.
Dr. Hacohen noted that most of the students' parents oppose sex segregation – and that this was made clear in a democratic vote held several months ago. He further argued that the intention contradicts a decision made by the Petah Tikva mayor and City Council, and its Education Administration.
According to the petition, mixed studies have been taking place in the "Morasha" elementary school for decades. From the third grade, the classrooms are separated according to gender.
Recently, however, the Religious Education Administration decided to split the school in two according to gender, with the aim of eventually creating two schools – one for boys and one for girls.
"This sex segregation fits in with the growing religious radicalization trend characterizing state religious education in the past few years," the petition claims.
"This trend seeks to impose strict halachic norms on the entire public, while strongly hurting parents who are not interested in accepting such strict norms and harming their own autonomy and that of their children, and their right to equality, freedom, freedom of religion and conscience and freedom of education."
According to the High Court petition, the plan to split the school stemmed from the growing number of students and lack of room. The Education Ministry and Petah Tikva Municipality turned to the parents' committee, which includes 125 members, and asked them to suggest an acceptable way to split the school.
The committee held many meetings for more than eight months, in the presence of the school principal and representatives of the municipality's Education Administration, and came up with a number of possible alternatives.
After long deliberations the parents' committee decided to discuss two options: Splitting the school into two divisions – first to third grades and fourth to sixth grades; or creating two schools according to gender. The first option received the majority of votes (64 against 57) in a secret ballot.
The municipality representatives informed the parents that the "municipality has every intention of keeping its promise and honoring the committee's decision." Several months ago, the Education Administration even issued a statement saying the decision had been accepted by the municipality.
But shortly afterwards, Rabbi Avraham Lifshitz, head of the Education Administration, announced that the decision was unacceptable and that the school would be divided in two according to gender. He refused to renege on his decision even after meeting with the parents, prompting them to seek legal aid.
The petitioners claim that splitting the schools according to gender is an act of "forcing strict halachic norms and changing the custom which has existed in all state religious schools for decades."
The Education Ministry said in response that at the request of the parents' committee chairman, Nir Orbach, the Religious Education Administration has appointed a high committee to reexamine the matter.
Tomer Velmer contributed to this report