Is the Education Ministry authorized to force secular children to study in a secondary school which is designated as both state secular and religious, but where the religious students outnumber secular ones 7.5 to 2.5, and the principal and school supervisor are religious?
This is the issue raised on Monday during a hearing on a petition filed to the High Court of Justice by Meretz MK Ilan Gilon and 14 secular families who refused to send their children to a high school that opened over two years ago in Shlomi, near the Lebanese border, and was designated to serve both educational streams.
The current school year marked the first time since the school opened that the local school board and the Education Ministry refused to allow secular parents to send their children to the state-secular regional high school in the Western Galilee district. During the first two years of the Shlomi school's operation, secular parents were allowed to do so.
Today, ORT-Shlomi, as the school is called, has three grades - seventh, eighth and ninth.
According to Shlomi Mayor Gabi Na'aman, who attended the hearing, 151 students are studying there this year - 111 in the religious stream and 40 in the secular stream.
Last week, in the state's response to the petition, the ministry informed the court that it had changed its mind.
According to its new policy, it wrote, "in any case where the student and his parents declare that the basis for their request for a transfer is their desire that the student study in an 'ordinary' state-secular or state-religious framework, the request will be granted."
The ministry, however, did not go so far as to say that it would not establish other mixed-stream schools in the future, or require both secular and religious families to send their children there. In other words, the ministry's decision does not set a precedent, should the same situation arise elsewhere in the country some day.
Nor did the ministry recognize that the families were entitled by right to send their children to the regional high school. It said they would have to pay the costs of transportation and the school fee charged to "external students."
During the hearing, it emerged that the real reason the Shlomi Local Council refused to allow secular students to study at the regional high school was not that which the Education Ministry had presented in its response to the petition.
In the petition, the state wrote that the intermingling of secular and religious students would prepare them for life in the larger, heterogeneous community of Shlomi.
But Na'aman made it clear during the hearing
that if the secular students left, the school might not survive financially, because it was dependent on donors from abroad who agreed to support the school precisely because it was integrated. Without that support, said Na'aman, the school could not afford to continue operating.
The panel of justices - Edmond Levy, Miriam Naor and Uzi Fogelman - expressed enthusiastic support for the mixed-stream school.
Levi said that "the parties ought to consult with each other and find a solution which will enable ORT-Shlomi to survive... The solution must be creative so that this wonderful idea [of a mixed secular-religious school] will not be lost."
He ordered the sides to report back to the court within 75 days.
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