Kiryas Joel Decision Supreme Court Nixes Religious School District By a 6 to 3 margin, the

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Kiryas Joel Decision Supreme Court Nixes Religious School District By a 6 to 3 margin, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 27 that a 1989 New York State law setting up a separate public school district for the exclusive use of Satmar Hasidic Jews in the village of Kiryas Joel violates the Establishment Clause. The Court ratified the findings of a state trial court, an intermediate appellate court, and the New York Court of Appeals, all of which concluded that the New York law's primary effect was the advancement of religion. The decision in Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet was a complicated one, complete with several concurring opinions in addition to the majority ruling and the dissent. Speaking for the majority, Justice David Souter held that creating a public school district for a religious community leaves the Court with no way to safeguard the principle that government should not prefer one religion to another, or religion in general. "The fundamental source of constitutional concern here is that the legislature itself may fail to exercise governmental authority in a religiously neutral way," wrote Souter for himself and colleagues Blackmun, Stevens, O'Connor, and Ginsburg. Admitting that government may be required on occasion to accommodate the legitimate needs of certain religious groups, Souter made a sharp distinction in this case. He reasoned that the creation of a separate school district for one faith group "crosses the line from permissible accommodation to impermissible establishment." He also noted that there are several alternatives for providing bilingual and bicultural special education programs to the Satmar Hasidic children. A school district could offer programs at one of its public schools or at a neutral site near one of the village's parochial schools. (Most Kiryas Joel children attend sectarian private schools. Only educationally disadvantaged children have been attending the schools under review in this suit, i.e., the public school special education district under religious control.) Justice Souter also held that the statute, by delegating the state's authority over public schools to a religious group, brought about an impermissible fusion of governmental and religious functions forbidden by the Supreme Court in previous cases, e.g., Larken v. Grendel's Den. Souter was concerned that "the Kiryas Joel School District was one purposely drawn to separate Satmars from non-Satmars." Souter was also disturbed that the district came about from "a special and unusual legislative act rather than from the State's general laws for school district organization." Justice Anthony Kennedy concurred but held that the "school district's real vice is that New York created it by drawing political boundaries on the basis of religion." There is, he concluded, "more than a fine line between the voluntary association that leads to a political community comprised of people who share a common religious faith, and the forced separation that occurs when the government draws explicit political boundaries on the basis of peoples' faith." This is "explicit religious gerrymandering," he wrote. In a concurring opinion, Justice Stevens noted that "the State provided official support to cement the attachment of young adherents to a particular faith" and "affirmatively supports a religious sect's interest in segregating itself and preventing its children from associating with their neighbors." Stevens added, "It is telling that two thirds of the schools' full-time students are Hasidic handicapped children from outside the village; the Kiryas Joel school thus serves a population far wider than the village -- one defined less by geography than by religion." The Court's conservative bloc, Scalia, Rehnquist and Thomas, issued a sarcastic dissent. Scalia, its author, accused the majority of "casting aside, on the flimsiest of evidence, the strong presumption of validity that attaches to facially neutral laws and invalidates the present accommodation. . ." Scalia used his dissent, once again, to issue a tirade against the whole jurisprudence of church-state law since the 1940s. He blasted "a recent tendency in the opinions of this Court to turn the Establishment Clause into a repealer of our nation's tradition of religious toleration." Wrote Scalia, "Once this Court has abandoned text and history as guides, nothing prevents it from calling religious toleration the establishment of religion." Scalia's language provoked a rate rebuke from Justice Souter. Observing that Scalia "thrusts at lions of his own imagining," Souter said Scalia's dissent "is only one symptom of his inability to accept the fact that this Court has long held that the First Amendment reaches more than classic, 18th century establishments." Shortly after the ruling the state legislature passed and Gov. Mario Cuomo signed a new law to circumvent it by allowing municipalities meeting five criteria to create special school districts. Lawmakers acknowledged their intent to help the Satmar sect maintain its religiously segregated school. The New York State School Boards Association found that the Kiryas Joel village is the only municipality to fit the criteria. Its executive director, Louis Grumet, filed suit in July to challenge the new law. Americans for Religious Liberty had joined with other groups in the National Coalition for Public Education and Religious Liberty (PEARL) in an amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court. From "Voice of Reason," no. 49, Spring 1994, newsletter of Americans for Religious Liberty, P.O. Box 6656, Silver Spring, MD 20916.


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