We’ll soon hit a full year of trying to figure out how public education works (or doesn’t) during a pandemic. Some of the experience gained may be specific to 2020 – the social and political dynamics of which have not been even remotely encouraging (see what I did there?).
I've been posting rough drafts from what I hope will be an upcoming book focused on Supreme Court cases related to church-state separation in public education. Some aren't cases likely to get full treatment in the book but of interest to me personally, so I ramble about them here. Others – like this one – don't require extended analysis or my trademark pithy insights, but still deserve a mention. (The final version of this one will probably be shaved by about a third to keep things readable and leave a few trees in the forests.)
Even Scalia couldn’t have genuinely believed that the First Amendment only kicked in once an institution attained a specific number of members or reached a preset threshold of political power. Playing on the struggles of the Satmar to set up the straw argument that the issue was one of dominance over the rest of New York was disingenuous at best, red-meat ranting better suited to Fox News than the nation’s highest court.
Kiryas Joel was (and is) a community of particularly insular Hasidic Jews (the Satmars) in New York. Most of their children attended private religious schools, but they asked the state for assistance providing care and education for their special needs children. Initial efforts to serve these particular children ran into conflict with recent Supreme Court rulings which struck down several public school efforts to serve high needs kids in religious institutions. New York responded by allowing the Satmars to create their own neighborhood and later a publicly funded neighborhood school tailored to their precise boundaries.
As a practical matter, it certainly solved the problem. Constitutionally, on the other hand...
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.
A “Hall of Separation”
That’s a horrible title and I wish I could stop thinking it’s not.
As you probably know, given that it’s pretty much all I talk about these days, I’ve been researching Supreme Court cases involving issues of church-state separation in relation to public education. My hope is to have something ready before the entire system collapses and any benefit one may derive from it is no longer relevant.
Like many school systems, Hawkins County schools teach “critical reading” as opposed to reading exercises that teach only word and sound recognition. “Critical reading” requires the development of higher order cognitive skills that enable students to evaluate the material they read, to contrast the ideas presented, and to understand complex characters that appear in reading material…
From a constitutional standpoint, the most interesting thing was the natural tension which sometimes occurs between free exercise and non-establishment. Socio-emotionally, however, the real hand grenade was the question of individual parental rights (with a side of religious freedom) vs. the presumed long-term good of the child and of society as a whole. Civilization is premised on the idea that we’ll each forego a degree of personal autonomy in order to benefit from participation in society. Schools are a major part of that arrangement.
While I’m still skeptical about the degree to which short stories in a middle school primer truly pushed little people into worshipping horse gods, this second list has the significant benefit of not sounding completely insane. Maybe it WAS possible that the touchy-feely, one-gluten-free-world mojo so popular with academic types in the late 1970s had infiltrated the editorial choices of those most in a position to influence tiny brains.
At what point have we raced well past “everyone is different” and ended up lost somewhere between “meat is murder” and “vote Bernie or we all perish”?
Most “wall of separation” cases related to public education involve questions of “establishment.” When Ms. Magdalene puts up Christmas decorations in her classroom, that violates the Establishment Clause. Inviting local clergy to open graduation ceremonies with a brief prayer is a no-no because it’s “establishment.” Requiring equal time for Creationism when it’s time for the chapter on Evolution? You guessed it – that’s “establishment” as well.
From time to time, however, a case will work its way through the system asserting the opposite. In these “free exercise” cases, the claim is that the state – in this case, manifested as the public school system – has hindered personal expressions of religious belief or behavior without sufficient cause. The “sufficient cause” part is important because the state has the right to place some limits on how faith is manifested when there’s a good reason. (Human sacrifice, for example, is a “no-no” even if your gods demand placation.) Government entities must demonstrate that they have a good reason for their restrictions, however. And, if there are less-restrictive ways to accomplish those goals, they have to try those first.