A coalition of civil rights, faith-based and education-advocacy groups sued the state Thursday in an attempt to force it to integrate New Jersey’s public and charter schools.

Retired state Supreme Court Justice Gary Stein, who is chairman of the New Jersey Coalition for Diverse and Inclusive Schools, said racial segregation is worse in New Jersey than in any state in the south and “can’t any longer be tolerated.”

“New Jersey’s public school segregation results from a long-standing failure of state educational policy that’s legally and morally indefensible,” Stein said.

The lawsuit asks the court to strike down state laws requiring students to almost always attend their local public school and charter schools to prioritize students from their home district.

“We cannot afford to ignore this problem any longer. Our state is becoming more diverse, but segregation is getting worse,” said Elise Boddie, a civil rights attorney and Rutgers University law professor.

Adrienne Sanders, first vice president of the New Jersey Conference of the NAACP, said that without change, segregation continues to provide separate and unequal education for black, Latino and low-income students.

“It is truly contemptible and unacceptable that there is more segregation now than there was in the late '60s and '70s,” Sanders said.

The lawsuit was filed on the 64th anniversary of the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional.

Ryan Haygood, executive director of the Institute for Social Justice, said New Jersey needs the lawsuit because it can’t meet legal and moral promises without it.

“New Jersey has been complicit in the creation and persistence of school segregation because it requires that students attend public schools in the municipalities in which they live,” Haygood said.

There are about 1.375 million students in New Jersey’s public schools. Close to 585,000 are black or Latino. Of those children, 270,000 – nearly half – attend schools that are more than 90 percent minority.

A UCLA study last year ranked New Jersey sixth nationally in terms of the highest segregation for black students and seventh in segregation of Hispanic students.

“I pray that we’re successful – not just for Latino families, not just for black families, but for white families and all of New Jersey. And hopefully we’ll serve as an example to the rest of the country,” said Christian Estevez, president of the Latino Action Network.

Haygood said school segregation is also harmful to white students, more than 40 percent of whom attend school systems that are at least 75 percent white.

“Segregation deprives New Jersey’s white students of the opportunity to learn from and among and to compete with black and Latino children, thereby among other things instilling in them a false sense of superiority,” Haygood said.

The lawsuit was filed in state Superior Court in Mercer County.

The plaintiffs recommend creating magnet schools that draw students from multiple districts and voluntary transfer plans. They acknowledge the changes could take a long time and that their cost would be a hurdle.

“The remedies, which we spell out in the complaint, may take several years to implement,” Stein said. “But it’s the view of our coalition and the plaintiffs that the time to start the process of correcting this abysmal situation is now.”