Sunday, March 27, 1994 The Times Herald Record page 3 Reconciling church and state by Edwa
Sunday, March 27, 1994
The Times Herald Record
Reconciling church and state
by Edward F. Moltzen, Staff Writer
Ten years ago, Nathan Lewin tried to convice the U.S. Supreme
Court that a Jewish airman should be allowed to wear a yarmulke
along with a uniform.
The case was one of several in which the lawyer sought to persude the
nine justices on the nation's highest court to chip away at the wall
erected by the legal system between church and state.
If the airman could walk around in a yarmulke that wasn't
regulation, asked Associate Justice Byron White, what was to
stop him from walking around in, say, a toupee?
"Well, because he's not bald," said Lewin, as the tradition-
bound, serious courtroom broke into snickers.
The justices ruled against Lewin anyway. Now he has another
crack at the tangled question of church-state relations. This
time, the justices may be more sympathetic.
Oral arguements are schedulaed for Wednsday in a case that will
decide the constituionality and the future of the Kiryas Joel
Lewin will try to convince the court that the state Legislature
was in within it's rights to create a public school district
for the village of Hasidic Jews in Orange County.
The decision could make life and schooling more difficult for
more then 200 disabled children who now go to classes there.
However, it could also have repercussions beyond the village of
10,000. Numerous commentators have speculated that the justices
could use the widely publicized case to allow governments to do
more to accommodate religion and religious groups across
"It's a case that could have very broad implications for the
seperation of the church and state," says Paul Rothstein, a
professor at Georgetown Law School.
In a few ambiguous, the Constitution guarantees freedom from
religion to all Americans. It also prohibits government from
promoting religion in general or any other paticular church.
In a 1971 case called Lemon vs. Kurtzman, the Supreme Court
interpreted the Constituion to mean all laws must be secular in
purpose, not have a primary effect of advancing religion, nor
create an excessive government entanglement with religion.
Because of the Lemon ruling, states cannot provide aides to
parochial schools. [School-lead] Prayer has been banned at high
school graduations. Towns think twice before displaying the [a]
Several justices have hinted that that the time is right to
overturn the Lemon precedent, which has been law of the land
for a generation.
The law for the next generation could come from Kiryas Joel.
Bottom of the ninth
The Kiryas Joel School District was created by an act of state
Legislature in 1989, after years of what is considered
"intractable" religious disputes.
Parents in the close-knit, all-Hasidic community refusted to
send their disabled boys and girls to classes offered by the
Monroe-Woodbury public school district. They said the experince
would be too traumatic for their children.
The Hasidic boys faced taunts because of their yarmulkes, side
curls and ultra-orthodox lifestyle, their parents said. The
girls face similar problems.
But Louis Grumet, executive director of the New York State
School Boards Association, sued almost immediatley after the
new school district was created.
Long an opponent of government financing of parochial schools,
Grumet says it's unconstitutional to create a new public school
district for religious reasons.
He says that such a precednt could open the door to religion-
based school districts across the country, draining government
resources from non-religious public schools.
Three state courts have sided with Grumet, including New York's
highest, the Court of Appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court case
represents the bottom of the ninth for the Kiryas Joel district.
Written arguements as a preview
Religious groups as diverse as the Roman Catholic Church and
fundamentalist Protestants have called for the overturn of
Lemon. But the lawyers in the case are downplaying that
"When you litigate in the Supreme Court, the main focus has got
to be on getting the majority of the court, getting five
votes," Lewin said. "There may be five votes to overturn Lemon
vs. Kurtzman there."
"But if I'm representing a party that's interested in winning
the case, I can't put all my eggs in that basket. And I've got
to take the ground that's the most narrow, and likely, to
appeal to five justices on the court."
Lewin, in written arguements, has said that the justices could
leave Lemon precedent in place and still rule in Kiryas Joel's
favor. The district doesn't violate the precedent anyway, he says.
Rather he is ready to argue that disabled Hasidic children
should not be prohibited from a public school education just
because virtually all the people in their community belong to
the same religious cult.
Jay Worona, who represents the School Boards Association, has
conceded that the court could use the case as an excuse for a
new consitutional departure.
But he has written in his arguements that nothing the court can
change the fact that the Kiryas Joel district is
"consitutionally infirm" because it was created to favor a
single religious community.
Worona also repeated his contention before the state Court of
Appeals last year that the courts should be even more strict
when church-state issues involve schools, as with Kiryas Joel.
"All of the Supreme Court cases dealing with public education
have told us that there's even more of a problem with
impressionable minds," Worona said then.
Several of the justices have hinted, or said clearly, that they
think the Lemon case should be tossed.
Leading that charge is Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, who
has likened the precedent to a creature that will not be killed
even though it is repeatedly stabbed.
Lewin knows Scalia well - they were classmates together at
Harvard Law School and worked on the Harvard Law Review
"We were friendly," Lewin recalled. But he also noted, "I
finished sixth in my class. I know the five people who are
ahead of me, and none of them is Antonin Scalia."
Scalia's remarks on the Lemon precedent have drawn fire from
Associate Justice Ruth Bader Gunsburg, who said at her U.S.
Senate confirmation last year that calls to eliminate the
precedent are "disingenuous" without a workable alternative.
Ginsburg may be the swing vote when a final decision is
reached, probably in June, in the Kiryas Joel.
As the battle takes shape in the marble halls of the court this
week, the work of teaching children will continue in Kiryas
"I have to admit there's a level of anxiety," said Kiryas Joel
School Superintendent Dr. Steve Benardo. "There's a level of
that we've done is right. What we've done is appropiate. The
community as well as the school staff believes the court will
Benardo said he will be present at oral arguements with School
Board president Abraham Wieder and Malka Silverstein, a mother
of a disabled child who has attended both Monroe-Woodbury and
Kirays Joel schools.
"We felt a parent should be there when the case is argued",
If Kirays Joel loses the case, the state will be forced to
dismantle the district. The responsibility for teaching its
children will shift to Monroe-Woodbury.
The children could be taught in private schools or Monroe-
Woodbury. Some might be kept home.
"This is a stoic community," Bernardo said. "They take what is
given to them and move forward."
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