Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet (1994) – Part One

I’m discovering as I continue to draft a follow-up to “Have To” History: Landmark Supreme Court Cases that it’s more and more difficult to keep things succinct as subject matter nears the 21st century. There’s so much relevant context for each case and potential applications are far more immediate… it’s difficult at times to know what’s essential and what’s not. 

I’m sharing a few rough drafts along the way partly in hopes a few of you, my Eleven Faithful Followers, might find them interesting, and partly because nothing highlights the problems in a text like posting it live for all the world to see. Some version of this material will likely be in the upcoming book. Chances are good, however, that the final results will be considerably more succinct – which is both necessary and a tiny bit sad. 

Getting Hasidic With It

Three Big Things:

1. In an effort to accommodate a particularly insular community of Hasidic Jews (the Satmars), the State of New York created a neighborhood and later a publicly funded neighborhood school tailored to their precise boundaries. Most children attended private religious schooling; the public school served only special needs kids from the Satmars and surrounding Hasidic communities. 

2. The Supreme Court found this to be a violation of the Establishment Clause, although admittedly not by much. The lines between accommodating religious beliefs and unconstitutionally supporting them were (and are) often complicated and difficult to agree upon.

3. Prior decisions regarding the “entanglement” of the State in religious education required reconsideration. There might actually be less mess and conflict in allowing states a bit more flexibility in how they managed their educational resources. 

Context

The circumstances of Kiryas Joel were unusual enough that the logistics themselves offer little to guide future students, parents, educators, or administrators. For anyone not living or working in a carefully constructed community of cultural outliers who end up with their own state-financed school district for special needs children, there seems (at first glance) to be little reason to devote more than a few lines to the case and its outcome.

And yet, taken in context, the case offers several points of interest and possible instruction – even for those uncertain what Hasidic Judaism even means

Kiryas Joel offered an interesting case study in the impact of unintended consequences as it struggled to reconcile recent precedent with the circumstances actually before the Court. Justices wrestled with the validity and usefulness of the “Lemon Test” as well as the appropriate lines between accommodating free exercise vs. propping up religion with State resources. Many of the issues involved were minor variations on those shaping the so-called “school choice” debate evolving at around the same time. It’s easy enough to distinguish between free exercise and establishment in theory, but when stirred together with the State’s vested interest in universal education, the rights of special needs children, religious tensions, economic realities, and a little political pragmatism, it’s all but impossible to meaningfully isolate either ideal. 

Finally, Justice Antonin Scalia yet again proved himself incapable of merely disagreeing with a decision or the reasoning behind it without sarcastically eviscerating everyone involved. In this case, however, Justice David Souter, writing for the majority (or at least the plurality – it’s complicated), rolled his rhetorical eyes and played the “there goes crazy Uncle Tony again” card. “Justice Scalia’s dissent is certainly the work of a gladiator…” he wrote, “but he thrusts at lions of his own imagining.”

So what happened in Kiryas Joel to spark this particular kerfuffle?

Background

Satmar Hasidic Judaism is a particularly strict branch of the faith which practices separation from the world and comes with its own religious laws and traditions. Members live in tight, crowded communities where they primarily speak Yiddish and avoid television, radio, newspapers, and the like. Men are in charge, no one uses birth control and, while peaceful, they don’t play well with others. On the other hand, they do rock their hat game. The modern shtreimel is simply fearless

Kiryas Joel is an enclave of Satmars in New York’s Hudson Valley. Property in the area was purchased by the Satmars in the 1970s for the sole purpose of forming this exclusive community; it was quickly filled and became largely self-sufficient. Children are educated in private yeshivas, where the focus was Jewish law and traditions. Most daily interactions are governed by Jewish law rather than the state. 

Like any community of 8,000 or so, a small percentage of Satmar children were special-needs. The Satmars weren’t going to win any participation trophies with larger society, but they paid their taxes like everyone else and asked the local school district to step up and help. For a community priding itself on isolationism, someone in the mix must have been aware of precedents like Witters v. Washington Dept. of Services for the Blind (1986), Meek v. Pittenger (1975), Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty v. Nyquist (1973), all the way back to Everson v. Board of Education (1947). (Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District was decided a year before Kiryas Joel, meaning the cases were working their ways through the system at roughly the same time.)

Also in the mix was the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) signed into law by President Ford a few years prior. IDEA was a well-intended piece of legislation which nevertheless created infinite logistical and economic nightmares for districts now required to provide intensive levels of service for a very small number of children while being slandered by the same lawmakers who passed it for not being more cost-effective – you know, like the private religious schools who aren’t bound to do anything they don’t feel like doing or accept anyone they don’t feel like accepting. 

In any case, Kiryas Joel was on firm constitutional ground making this particular request, and the local public school district readily complied. Initially this meant providing services in an annex attached to one of Kiryas Joel’s private religious institutions, an arrangement which was barely a year old when the Supreme Court announced its decisions in Grand Rapids v. Ball (1985) and Aguilar v. Felton (1985). In each of these cases, public school assistance to students in private religious institutions was ruled to violate the “excessive entanglement” part of the Lemon Test and thus ruled unconstitutional. So… time for Plan ‘B’, apparently. 

The district began transporting special needs Satmar kids off to their own facilities and continued to educate them there. The problem was, these public schools were, well… public – as in, they took all comers and did their best to make sure everyone got along and were treated more or less the same. With this came a certain lack of sensitivity to the ways of the Satmars, which may have reflected well-intentioned ignorance, a rejection of their culture as weird or undeserving of accommodation, or some combination of both. 

In any case, it didn’t go well. In one egregious example, the Hasidic kids were apparently taken to McDonald’s for lunch along with everyone else. (For those of you not rolling Hasidic, their menu isn’t exactly kosher.) In another, a disabled Satmar child was dressed up as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer for a holiday pageant – another major no-no for super-conservative Jews, or… any Jews, really. 

These sorts of things would create issues for any child, but these were high-needs kids who weren’t always able to process the world at maximum efficiency anyway. Plus, they didn’t just come from a different faith – they came from an entirely different world. The people were different, the clothes were different, the dynamics and expectations and norms were all completely different. The Satmars quickly pulled their kids back out of Insane Heretic School, but were left with their original dilemma – how to afford special needs education for a few dozen kids. 

The State Legislature of New York, with the approval of Governor Mario Cuomo, offered a solution. They created a new school district whose boundaries just happened to correspond exactly with the village of Kiryas Joel. Now there was a public school composed entirely by Satmar kids. Theoretically this could have included any of them, but – wacky coincidence – only the special needs kids’ families opted to have them attend. As it turned out, another few dozen came from outside the village, making a total school population of around 40. 

As a practical matter, it certainly solved the problem. Constitutionally, on the other hand...

I Told You The Hats Rocked

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