Board of Education, Kiryas Joel School District v. Grumet, 512 U.S. 687 (1994)

2012-01-05 04:43:42

Kiryas Joel involved a striking fact situation: a public school district created to serve only the disabled children of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect. But in striking down the district under the Establishment Clause, the Supreme Court relied on a simple, bedrock principle: any government accommodation of religious practice must extend not only to a single sect, but to any sect engaged in a similar practice.

The Satmar Hasidim are an insular, traditionalist group who speak primarily Yiddish, permit no television or radio, wear distinctive hair and clothing, and educate their children in gender-segregated private schools permeated by religious teaching. They formed a village in upstate New York called Kiryas Joel, inhabited only by sect members. The village’s disabled children, entitled to state and federal special-education assistance, at first received it in Satmar private schools, but had to switch to public schools after the Supreme Court signaled disapproval of private school aid in Aguilar v. Felton (1985; later overruled). The parents soon withdrew their children from public school, however, reporting that the children had been taunted by peers and traumatized by the secular atmosphere. The New York legislature then stepped in and created a special public school district tracking the lines of the village, allowing the Satmar children to receive aid in a sheltered setting, but prohibiting the district from teaching religion in its classes.

Notwithstanding the state’s legitimate goal of accommodating a religious and cultural minority, the Supreme Court ruled that the creation of the district violated the Establishment Clause and its command of government neutrality toward varying religious views. Justice Souter’s opinion for four justices, joined in part by Justice O’Connor, concluded that the Satmars had received a unique benefit, a separate school district, without any guarantee that it would be ‘‘provide [d] equally to other religious (and nonreligious) groups.’’ The state could accommodate needs such as the Satmars’, but only by a statute that did not single out one sect. Justice Scalia’s dissent argued that New York had created comparable special districts before and had given no indication that it would fail to accommodate a similar group in the future.

The justices in the majority also objected to the drawing of political lines to encompass only members of one sect. Justice Souter’s opinion argued that this created an improper ‘‘religious test’’ for membership in the district; Justice Kennedy concurred that ‘‘the Establishment Clause forbids the government to draw political boundaries on the basis of religious faith’’; and Justices Stevens and Ginsburg argued even more broadly that the state cannot ‘‘affirmatively suppor[t] a religious sect’s interest in segregating itself [from its] neighbors.’’ These arguments raise interesting parallels with the Court’s invalidation of race-based districting in decisions such as Shaw v. Reno. The arguments also touch on deep questions as to whether cultural and religious pluralism are better served by integrating and assimilating various groups or by allowing certain limited forms of ‘‘segregation’’ by groups, like the Satmar, that are internally nonpluralistic.

The legislature responded to the Court’s holding by passing general statutes allowing the creation of smaller school districts out of larger ones under certain criteria. Two such efforts were struck down by state courts in 1997 and 1999 on the grounds that their requirements were ‘‘gerrymandered’’ to benefit only the Satmar. But a fourth, broader statute was upheld in 2001.


References and Further Reading

  • Berg, Thomas C., Slouching Toward Secularism: A Comment on Kiryas Joel School District v. Grumet, Emory Law Journal 44 (1995): 433–99
  • Boyarin, Jonathan, Student Note: Circumscribing Constitutional Identities in Kiryas Joel, Yale Law Journal 106 (1997): 1537–70
  • Eisgruber, Christopher L., The Constitutional Value of Assimilation, Columbia Law Review 96 (1996): 87–103
  • Greene, Abner S., Kiryas Joel and Two Mistakes About Equality, Columbia Law Review 96 (1996): 1–86
  • Lewin, Tamar. ‘‘Controversy Over, Enclave Joins School Board Group.’’ New York Times, April 20, 2002
  • Lupu, Ira C., Uncovering the Village of Kiryas Joel, Columbia Law Review 96 (1996): 104–20
  • Rosen, Jeffrey, Kiryas Joel and Shaw v. Reno: A Text- Bound Interpretivist Approach, Cumberland Law Review 26 (1996): 387–406

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Aguilar v. Felton, 473 U.S. 402 (1985) 
  • Grumet v. Cuomo, 90 N.Y.2d 57, 681 N.E.2d 340 (1997) 
  • Grumet v. Pataki, 93 N.Y.2d 677, 720 N.E.2d 66 (1999) 
  • Shaw v. Reno, 509 U.S. 630 (1993)