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Court Weighs School District for Hasidic Sect

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Washington

A New York State law that created a school district to serve the disabled children of a Hasidic Jewish village does not represent an unconstitutional government establishment of religion, lawyers for the district and the state argued before the U.S. Supreme Court last week.

"It is our view that the accommodation of the needs of a religious community is permissible'' under the establishment clause of the First Amendment, said Nathan Lewin, the lawyer for the Kiryas Joel Village School District.

But the lawyer for Louis Grumet, the executive director of the New York State School Boards Association and the person who brought suit against the district, told the Justices that the 1989 state law had a primary purpose of advancing the religious beliefs of members of the Satmar Hasidic sect, who make up the population of Kiryas Joel.

"This case is about the limits of the establishment clause,'' said Jay Worona.

The case of Board of Education of the Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet (Case No. 93-517) made for a lively hourlong oral argument on March 30. The Justices peppered the lawyers with questions, but only a few members of the Court gave clear signals about which way they leaned.

"What you are saying is that the Satmar, because they live together, can't exercise the same kind of secular authority as any other group?'' Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist asked Mr. Worona.

But Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said she was troubled because it appeared that New York State had enacted a special law for the Hasidic village.

"Do you think the state's accommodation needs to be neutrally applied, ... or can the state single out one sect or group?'' she asked Julie S. Mereson, an assistant state attorney general helping defend the law.

"The legislature was reacting to a local problem,'' Ms. Mereson replied. "There was a need for this because what the state was faced with was an impasse.''

Long-Running Dispute

The Kiryas Joel district was created to solve a long-running dispute between village residents and the surrounding Monroe-Woodbury district over the provision of services to children with disabilities. (See Education Week, March 23, 1994.)

Although most village schoolchildren are educated in private yeshivas, teachers from Monroe-Woodbury for some years provided services to disabled children in an annex to the religious schools.

After the Supreme Court in 1985 barred public school teachers from offering services in private religious schools, however, Monroe-Woodbury school officials refused to provide special-education services at a neutral site within Kiryas Joel. Instead, they insisted that children needing services be bused to facilities outside the village.

Most Kiryas Joel parents declined to send their children outside the village. Those who did said the children faced problems in mixing with outsiders because of their unique Hasidic dress and customs.

The legislature intervened in 1989, creating the district along the same boundaries as the village of Kiryas Joel. The district has one school serving about 220 children.

New York State's highest court, the Court of Appeals, ruled 4 to 2 last year that because special-education services were already available from Monroe-Woodbury, the primary effect of the law was to yield to the religion-based demands of the Satmar community that their children be educated apart from others.

A Cultural Distinction?

When Mr. Worona raised the argument that the Kiryas Joel district was "religiously segregated,'' however, Associate Justice Antonin Scalia interrupted. He suggested that the district's creation was motivated more by the state's desire to address the cultural differences of the Satmar Hasidim than by a religious distinction.

"The state was accommodating primarily their customs, wasn't it?'' Justice Scalia said. "It seems to me [the state is] responding to purely cultural needs.''

Associate Justice David H. Souter appeared skeptical of the law, suggesting that legislature could have mandated that Monroe-Woodbury provide services at a neutral site within the village.

"By doing that, it would not have identified the school district with the governance of a religious sect,'' he said.

Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wondered whether the creation of the district was a "transfer of power'' to a religious sect.

The "transfer of power was to the residents of the community,'' Ms. Mereson responded, "and not to any religious organization.''

Last week's arguments were the first in which Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg participated in a church-state case before the High Court. She replaced retired Associate Justice Byron R. White, who often voted for greater accommodation of religion in public education.

Justice Ginsburg voiced several comments and questions during the arguments, but they were not easy to interpret.

At one point, she told Mr. Lewin that it would be "considerably harder'' for the district to prevail if it did not have the same boundaries as the existing village. The community was incorporated in 1977 by members of the Satmar sect, who had moved from their base in the New York City borough of Brooklyn.

Justice Ginsburg later suggested that there would be less of a constitutional question if the Monroe-Woodbury district operated the school within Kiryas Joel. But she also indicated that members of a devoutly religious sect could serve as officials in local government.

"Why can't you have a school board made up of religious people?'' she asked.

The Court is expected to rule on the case by early July.

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