Twenty-two years ago this month, I flew to Newark, N.J., rented a car, and drove north, crossing the border into New York state to find, in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, the village of Kiryas Joel, an enclave of Hasidic Jews of the Satmar sect.
I was there to gather information for an Education Week story previewing a U.S. Supreme Court case that would soon be argued about the public school district created by New York state lawmakers for the village.
Members of the Satmar sect, which originated in what is now Hungary and Romania, had migrated to the area from more than 50 miles away in the Williamsburg section of the New York City borough of Brooklyn. They were looking for space, and quiet, as the secular world was closing in on their Williamsburg neighborhood, but also a place where they could maintain an insular community of their conservative Jewish faith.
Children in the village attended private yeshivas, segregated by gender, but the education of the village’s inordinate number of children with disabilities had presented challenges for parents and policymakers for years. Ultimately, the politically well-connected sect sought and received help from the New York legislature and then-Gov. Mario M. Cuomo—a school district for the village of Kiryas Joel, and millions of dollars of state and federal aid that came with it, to serve children in special education.
The village had had difficult relations with the surrounding Monroe-Woodbury school district, compounded by the Supreme Court’s 1985 decision in Aguilar v. Felton that meant teachers from the public school district could no longer provide services in the private religious schools. The few Kiryas Joel parents who were willing to send their children with disabilities to Monroe-Woodbury schools faced insensitivity, including episodes in which one Satmar child was cast as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in a Christmas pageant.
Louis Grumet was the executive director of the New York State School Boards Association at the time, and a former aide to Cuomo, a Democrat. He could not believe that Cuomo would sign the bill creating what Grumet believed was a violation of the state and federal constitutions.
In a new book about the episode, The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel: The Rise of a Village Theocracy and the Battle to Defend the Separation of Church and State (Chicago Review Press), Grumet recounts his role in the unusual case and provides an engaging historical account that is generally fair to the Satmars’ arguments as well.
Grumet had grown up as a Jew in West Virginia, so he knew something about being a religious minority in America. He had gone to work for Cuomo when the future governor was secretary of state of New York.
“Over the next few years, I became Cuomo’s go-to ‘bleeding heart'—handling issues related to poverty, integration, Native Americans, people with disabilities, and similar matters,” Grumet writes. “It was some of the most enjoyable work of my career, and I had a near worshipful relationship with Cuomo, whom I saw as a brilliant lawyer and committed progressive politician.”
Grumet went on to become assistant New York state commissioner of education for more than five years before settling in as head of the state school boards association.
In 1989, as Gov. Cuomo considered the bill sent to him by the legislature to create the Kiryas Joel Village School District, Grumet went to see his old boss, thinking there was no way that Cuomo, whom he viewed as a committed constitutionalist, would sign a measure creating a public school district for a theocratic religious sect.
Grumet was disappointed to learn that Cuomo intended to sign the bill, and that the governor was angered by Grumet’s objections at this late stage of the process.
“I asserted that if the governor signed it, the courts would knock it out,” Grumet writes. Cuomo ushered him out of his office with a dismissive question, “Who’s going to sue?”
"'I will,’ I responded,” Grumet writes. “The governor smiled at me with a condescending grin that I had seen many times when I worked for him.”
The rest of the book is a crisp account of the legal odyssey of the school district, which was struck down by the New York state courts, including its highest court. To the joy of the Satmar sect, the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in to issue a stay of the New York high court’s decision, and it soon granted full review of the case. Many legal experts thinking the court might use the case to bring some clarity to its often-confusing church-state jurisprudence, particularly the three-part “Lemon test” for evaluating government action on religion, from the 1971 case of Lemon v. Kurtzman.
Grumet describes a meeting at National Education Association headquarters in Washington of all the groups on his side, including the teachers’ union, civil liberties groups, and religious groups such as the American Jewish Committee and the Baptist Joint Committee. Most of these groups had participated in religion cases at the Supreme Court for decades, and they were a bit concerned Grumet was planning to entrust the oral argument to his relatively green staff counsel, Jay Worona.
“During the meeting, the various groups managed to divide the important legal and policy arguments among themselves, and it wasn’t until Worona left to take a personal phone call that an ulterior motive for the meeting became apparent,” Grumet writes. “The instant Jay left the room, the meeting abruptly shifted to a discussion of whether this wet-behind-the-ears whippersnapper from Upstate New York was of sufficient experience, stature, and pedigree to take this important case to the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Grumet stuck by his man, and Worona argued the case against Nathan Lewin, a high-powered attorney hired by Kiryas Joel.
In the end, the Supreme Court did not use the case to reconsider the Lemon test, which remains in force. On June 27,1994, the court ruled 6-3 in Board of Education of the Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet to uphold the New York Court of Appeals, with a splintered majority.
“In this case, we are clearly constrained to conclude that the statute before us fails the test of neutrality,” Justice David H. Souter concluded in a part of the decision that was joined by four other justices. “It delegates a power this court has said ranks at the very apex of the function of a state, to an electorate defined by common religious belief and practice, in a manner that fails to foreclose religious favoritism. It therefore crosses the line from permissible accommodation to impermissible establishment.”
Throughout the process, Grumet relished his time in the media spotlight and in constitutional battle.
“As I finished reading the opinion and paused to ponder the fact that I had been part of a case that upheld the establishment clause, I was overwhelmed and humbled,” he writes. “But there was little time for reflection. ... There were calls to make and calls to return.”
Grumet stresses that throughout the legal battle, he remained convinced that the children with disabilities in Kiryas Joel would not suffer because some way of educating them would be worked out. He details the epilogue of what happened after the U.S. Supreme Court finished with the case, which itself is an interesting tale of Empire State power and politics.
There is one little flaw in this otherwise fine book: Grumet, and his editors at Chicago Review Press, failed to catch multiple misspellings of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s name. It is spelled “Ginsberg” several times, even on the same page or the same sentence in which the name is correctly spelled.
Grumet writes that after the decision, he held out hope that he and Cuomo could “resume our friendship and let bygones be bygones.” That was not to be, as the governor continued backing new forms of legislation designed to maintain a separate school district for Kiryas Joel until he was defeated for re-election in 1994 by Republican George Pataki.
It isn’t quite clear if, or how much, Grumet spoke to Cuomo after the episode. Cuomo died Jan. 1, 2015. Grumet says in his note on sources that he conducted interviews with “virtually all the major actors” in the curious case of Kiryas Joel—"the exception being Governor Cuomo, who would not submit to an interview.”
A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.