The U.S. Supreme Court on June 27 announced its decision
on an important church-state issue. The case, Board of
Education of Kiryas Joel v. Grumet, involves a 1989 New York
state law passed to create a special public school district to
serve about 200 special education children in the village of
Kiryas Joel, about 40 miles north of New York City. Kiryas Joel
is inhabited almost entirely by members of the Satmar sect of
Hasidic Orthodox Judaism.
The special school district, which provides only special
education services to handicapped children, was set up because
the Satmar Hasidic parents claimed that their children suffered
"panic, fear and trauma" when they had to attend special
education classes in a regular public school with a pluralistic
student body, an argument similar to that used by white
segregationists a generation ago.
When the special district was created, it was challenged
in state courts by Louis Grumet and Albert Hawk, director and
president respectively, of the New York State School Boards
Association. The Court of Appeals, the state's highest court,
ruled on July 6, 1993, that the special district is
unconstitutional. "This symbolic union of church and state
effected by the establishment of the Kiryas Joel village school
district," the state court ruled, "is sufficiently likely to be
perceived by the Satmar Hasidim as an endorsement of their
religious choices, or by nonadherents as a disapproval of their
individual religious choices."
Details of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling have not yet
arrived, but it appears that it followed the state court's
ruling (quotations given.) The primary effect of the special
law was "to yield to the demands of a religious community" with
"separatist tenets." The law was a "remarkable" piece of
"special interest legislation" that constituted "de jure
segregation for the benefit of one religious group."
The Supreme Court's Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices
Scalia and Thomas, were the dissenters in the six-to-three
decision. They are known to be critics of the constitutional
principle of church-state separation and have been critical of
the test of First Amendment constitutionality used by the Court
since the Lemon v. Kurtzman decision in 1971. Under the Lemon
test, to be constitutional a law must have a secular purpose and
secular primary effect and not create "excessive entanglement"
between religion and government.
Americans for Religious Liberty, PEARL, and Americans
United for Separation of Church and State joined with other
concerned organizations in amicus curiae briefs to the Supreme
Court defending church-state separation and the Lemon test.
Justice Scalia earlier this year snarled in a concurring opinion
that "Like some ghoul in a late night horror movie that
repeatedly sits up in its grave and shuffles around after being
repeatedly killed and buried [the] Lemon [test] stalks our
Establishment Clause jurisprudence once again, frightening the
little children and school attorneys." Fortunately Scalia's
repulsive view was not allowed to prevail.
Sectarian special interests, from the Catholic bishops to
Pat Robertson's mouthpieces, asked the Supreme Court to use this
case to undermine the wall of separation. The New York Times
said that "The Supreme Court's constant vigilance has preserved
the religious liberty of all Americans by keeping churches and
governments from meddling in each other's business. It has also
spared the United States much of the religious strife that
plagues other nations. Surely this is no time to pull down a
wall that has served the nation well."
Adapted from a an earlier editorial in "The Voice of Reason,"
published by Americans for Religious Liberty, P.O. Box 6656,
Silver Spring, MD 20916.---