The U.S. Supreme Court on June 27 announced its decision on an important church-state issu

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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.---

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