Court Strikes District for Hasidic Sect

By Mark Walsh — July 13, 1994 8 min read

A New York State law that created a public school district for a village of Hasidic Jews is a form of “religious favoritism’’ that violates the First Amendment’s prohibition against government establishment of religion, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.

In a 6-to-3 decision late last month, the High Court held that state lawmakers acted illegally in 1989 when they established a school district to serve children with disabilities in the village of Kiryas Joel, N.Y., a community of Satmar Hasidic Jews about 50 miles northwest of New York City.

Although the Kiryas Joel decision did not break with precedent, it may presage a significant change in school law, as five justices indicated that they would be willing to consider overturning a 1985 ruling that barred public school teachers from providing remedial instruction on the grounds of private religious schools.

Writing for a majority of the Court, Associate Justice David H. Souter said that the New York law “is tantamount to an allocation of political power on a religious criterion.’' The “unusual’’ law, he added, “crosses the line from permissible accommodation to impermissible establishment’’ of religion.

The case of Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet (Case No. 93-517) was being watched closely by educators nationally, not only because of the novelty of the Hasidic enclave, but because it provided the Supreme Court with another opportunity to alter its key precedents regarding government aid to religion or religious schools.

Once again, however, the High Court declined the invitation to re-examine the church-state precedent of Lemon v. Kurtzman, a 1971 case that established a test for evaluating government programs that benefit religion.

Justice Souter’s opinion largely ignored the Lemon case in deciding that New York State violated the Constitution when it established the Kiryas Joel school district.

Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, joined in a dissent by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, declared the majority’s decision “astounding’’ and said it “takes to new extremes a recent tendency in the opinions of this Court to turn the establishment clause into a repealer of our nation’s tradition of religious toleration.’'

Quick Legislative Response

Meanwhile, the New York State legislature passed two bills early this month that would effectively allow the village of Kiryas Joel to skirt the High Court’s ruling.

Acting in the final days of its term, the legislature passed a measure that would allow certain villages in New York State to establish their own school districts. Lawmakers seized on a passage in a concurring opinion in the Kiryas Joel case by Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who said the district might have passed constitutional muster if it had been created under a general state law.

Louis Grumet, the executive director of the New York State School Boards Association and the person who filed the legal challenge against the Kiryas Joel district, said he was pleased by the High Court’s ruling in the case but “stunned’’ by the state legislature’s response.

“We have felt all along this was as unconstitutional a violation of the establishment clause as we have ever seen in American history,’' Mr. Grumet said.

In a July 5 letter to Gov. Mario M. Cuomo urging him to veto the bills, Mr. Grumet wrote that “the express intent of this legislation is to permit the village of Kiryas Joel to operate a public school district. ... To pretend otherwise would be to participate in a sham.’'

Call To Overrule Aguilar

The most important implications of the Kiryas Joel decision for schools nationwide may lie in its indication that the High Court is willing to reconsider its 1985 ruling in Aguilar v. Felton, which invalidated the practice of sending public school teachers to private religious schools to provide Chapter 1 instruction.

Associate Justice O’Connor, in her concurring opinion, wrote that the Aguilar v. Felton ruling disfavored religion and “led New York to favor it here’’ with the separate Kiryas Joel district.

“The Court should, in a proper case, be prepared to reconsider Aguilar,’' she said.

Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who did not sign Justice Souter’s opinion but concurred in the outcome of the case, wrote that the Court’s decisions in Aguilar and a related case that same year, School District of Grand Rapids v. Ball, “may have been erroneous.’'

Justice Scalia, with the Chief Justice and Justice Thomas signed on, called Aguilar and Grand Rapids “hostile to our national tradition of accommodation’’ and said they should be “overruled at the earliest opportunity.’'

The references to Aguilar and Grand Rapids pleased Mark Chopko, the general counsel of the U.S. Catholic Conference. The group, which represents the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops, submitted a brief in the case calling for those precedents to be overturned.

“Maybe if the focus of the litigation was on Aguilar rather than on Lemon, they might have used it to overturn’’ the prohibition on public school teachers providing services in religious schools, he said.

Serving an Insular Village

The High Court’s 1985 ban on public teachers in private sectarian schools set the stage for the creation of the separate school district in Kiryas Joel.

Most children in the village are educated in private yeshivas. Prior to 1985, teachers from the surrounding Monroe-Woodbury Central school district provided services to the village’s disabled children in annexes to the religious academies.

After the decisions in Aguilar and Grand Rapids, Kiryas Joel officials tussled with school administrators over how to continue providing special-education services.

The school district refused to provide the services at a neutral site within the village, which currently has a population of about 12,000. Hasidic parents, meanwhile, objected to sending their disabled children to public schools in surrounding towns.

The state legislature intervened in 1989, creating a public school district with the same boundaries as the village of Kiryas Joel.

The district built a single school that in the recent academic year served 220 full- and part-time students with a full range of learning and physical disabilities. (See Education Week, March 23, 1994.)

The law was challenged by Mr. Grumet and Albert Hawk, another official of the state school boards association.

Two lower courts and the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, ruled that the law violated the First Amendment. The state high court held that the legislature had yielded to the religion-based demands of the Satmar Hasidic community that their children be educated apart from others.

Special Law Troubles Justices

The High Court majority affirmed the judgment of the New York Court of Appeals. Justice Souter was joined in most of his opinion by Associate Justices O’Connor, Harry A. Blackmun, John Paul Stevens, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Justice Souter said he was troubled by the fact that the Kiryas Joel school district was created by a special act of the state legislature and that there was no guarantee that “the next similarly situated group seeking a school district of its own will receive one.’'

He acknowledged that government may “accommodate religious needs by alleviating special burdens.’' But the High Court has “never hinted that an otherwise unconstitutional delegation of political power to a religious group could be saved as a religious accommodation,’' he said.

Justice Kennedy concurred in the result, but wrote a separate opinion emphasizing that “the real vice of the school district ... is that New York created it by drawing political boundaries on the basis of religion.’'

In his dissent, Justice Scalia said the Founding Fathers would be “astonished’’ to learn that the establishment clause had been used to prohibit the accommodation of the religious practices “of a tiny minority sect.’'

He declared that the founder of the Satmar Hasidic sect, Grande Rebbe Joel Teitelbaum, “would be astounded to learn that after escaping brutal persecution and coming to America with the modest hope of religious toleration for their ascetic form of Judaism, the Satmar had become so powerful, so closely allied with Mammon, as to have become an ‘establishment’ of the Empire State.’'

Justice Souter responded pointedly to the dissent in his own opinion, calling Justice Scalia a “gladiator’’ who “thrusts at lions of his own imagining.’'

“The license he takes in suggesting that the Court holds the Satmar sect to be New York’s established church... is only one symptom of his inability to accept the fact that this Court has long held that the First Amendment reaches more than classic, 18th-century establishments,’' Justice Souter wrote.

New York State Bill

The bill passed by the state legislature, which Governor Cuomo has indicated he will sign, would allow municipalities with at least 2,000 children to become a separate district so long as the town’s residents voted to do so and the school board of the existing district consented. The bill also provides safeguards to prevent wealthier communities from seceding from their school districts.

Steven M. Benardo, the superintendent of the Kiryas Joel district, said the law would apply to as many as 50 or 60 municipalities in New York State, not just the Hasidic village.

He added that the community had undergone an anxious week.

“It was devastating to hear we had lost’’ the High Court ruling, he said. “Everyone says we are running an excellent program. It’s up to the village residents to determine whether they would take advantage of the law. They have come to be very committed to their public schools.’'