May 2016 Church & State - May 2016

The Curious Case Of Kiryas Joel

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Editor’s Note: Louis Grumet is former executive director of the New York State School Boards Association. In 1994, Grumet served as plaintiff in an important church-state case called Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet that reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Grumet and his co-author, John Caher, have just released a book about the legal challenge titled The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel: The Rise Of A Village Theocracy And The Battle To Defend The Separation Of Church And State (Chicago Review Press). Grumet discussed the book recently with Church & State. 

Q. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the case that bears your name in June of 1994. Some of our newer readers may not know the whole story behind the case. Can you provide a short summary of the issues it raised?

Grumet: Sure. In short, the case was about a constitutionally illegitimate means of addressing a legitimate problem.

            Kiryas Joel is a community in the Hudson Valley established after an insular group of Hasidic Jews bought up land in a rural area, populated it exclusively with members of their faction and then created a village comprised of members of their religion and governed by their theocratic tradition. The children were primarily educated in private yeshivas, and Jewish law, not the laws of the state of New York, resolves civil disputes. The inhabitants generally spoke Yiddish, not English, and eschewed television, radio, newspapers, sports and birth control. They had no interest in the melting pot, opposed assimilation with the broader culture and lived a largely isolationist life – as is their absolute right.

Although the vast majority of the children were educated in private schools, the village was unable to afford the extremely high cost of providing educational services to their special-needs pupils and demanded, as taxpayers, that the local school district provide services that they are required to provide under state and federal law.

The local school district’s reaction was, “Fine, send them over.” These children with disabilities, struggling to make sense of one culture, were unable to adapt to two, and the school district only made things much worse by its callous indifference to the customs and restrictions which were part of their religion. In one instance, a disabled Hasidic child was dressed up as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer for a holiday pageant; in another, Hasidic children were brought to McDonald’s, hardly a kosher establishment, for lunch. The children were so traumatized that the parents, quite understandably, pulled their kids out of the local public school.

Instead of working with the school district to resolve the issues, the state’s solution was a special law establishing a religiously gerrymandered village of Kiryas Joel “public” school to serve only the children of this one sect. This arrangement would have given the religious group the power to direct public funding according to their beliefs. This marked the first time in American history that a governmental unit was established specifically for one religious group.

When I heard the legislation had passed (in the middle of the night, on the last day of session, hidden in a bill with numerous completely unrelated items, with most legislators having no idea what they were voting on), I paid a visit to my old friend, mentor and former employer, Gov. Mario Cuomo, and urged him to veto it. Cuomo was too smart a lawyer to not know the legislation was unconstitutional, but he dismissed my entreaties with a smug, “Who’s going to sue?”

My response: “I will.” That was the start of several years of litigation.


Q. Tell us a little about your background. What led you to get involved and serve as a plaintiff?

Grumet: I grew up in West Virginia, where I experienced my share of anti-Semitism, became a ’60s liberal, eventually got a law degree from New York University and a master’s in public administration from the University of Pittsburgh. My undergraduate work was at George Washington University. I spent my career as a public policy wonk and as an official at the state Education Department was responsible for overseeing the state’s special-education program.

At the time this case started, I was executive director of the New York State School Boards Association. It was in that capacity that I became a plaintiff. As a civil libertarian and lawyer, I was offended that my state and my governor had so casually abandoned the Constitution for political expediency. I imagine my background and ethnic heritage played some role. I mean, who knows better than a Jewish kid from a border state the dangers of church-state entanglement?


Q. Your book about the case is just out. What can readers expect?

Grumet: The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel is a story of religion, politics, culture, government and constitutional law, all centered on a small community of Satmar Hasidim that is so far outside the American mainstream that it cannot (and will not) assimilate but was oddly blind to the fact that by insisting on its own captive governmental unit, it was undermining the very instrument that protects its traditions and mores from government interference: The [church­­­state separation] clause of the First Amendment.

The book spotlights the timeless freedom of versus freedom from religion debate that engaged James Mad­ison and Thomas Jefferson more than 200 years ago. That tension inherent in one of our most cherished freedoms – the right to worship according to our own conscience and not according to government dictate or the tyranny of the majority – inevitably occurs with a Constitution that, in one breath bars the “establishment of religion,” and in the next guarantees the “free exercise” of religion. Kiryas Joel, and the litigation it spawned, is a tangible lesson in this doctrinal and constitutional gridlock.

In this book, readers get a rare inside glimpse of power politics and how a small, insular group can exploit its bloc voting power to get its way with even as principled a public figure as former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. They will learn why Cuomo felt trapped into supporting legislation he had to know was unconstitutional, why his successor, George Pataki, sponsored the bill in the first place and why the Hasidic community desperately sought an unconstitutional solution to its problem when legitimate solutions (giving them less power over public monies) were available.


            Q. After the Supreme Court ruled, New York legislators continued to placate the Hasidic community in Kiryas Joel, and there was follow-up litigation. In light of that, how do you assess the long-term impact of the high court’s decision?

Grumet: I see Kiryas Joel as a crucial benchmark at a crucial juncture. It said that a governmental unit could not be established for one religious group. I am certain both Jefferson and Madison would applaud the bottom-line result of the case and equally certain that they would be gravely troubled by what has occurred since. Eventually, the legislature passed four different laws, each broadening the definition of the eligible district until it passed muster. Factually, however, the ruckus surrounding the case made it impossible to establish another such district. It is my hope that another lawyer somewhere will have the case and the nerve and the support to carry the Jefferson-Madison banner to a new generation of American citizens and judges and to preserve what former President Bill Clinton has referred to as “perhaps the most precious of all American liberties – called by many our ‘first freedom.’”


Q. How did this small, insular religious community get so much political power?

Grumet: The community, and its sister community in the heart of Brooklyn, are theocracies whose members almost uniformly vote as they are directed by the rabbi. They have one of the highest percentage turnouts in the country. Consequently, the powers that be in Kiryas Joel can promise, and deliver (or deny), thousands of votes at the drop of a hat. To a politician, that is a persuasive argument. Further, Kiryas Joel is not loyal to any party. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans can count on their vote. The only one who can count on those thousands upon thousands of votes is the individual politician who delivers when needed. And if the politician stops delivering, or another politician offers more, there go those votes.


Q. The oral argument was held on March 30, 1994. Tell us about what that day was like for you.

Grumet: For me, it was fun and exciting. My young attorney, Jay Woro­na, who volunteered his services and made his first-ever appearance before the Supreme Court, was hit with questions from all over the bench, interrupted incessantly and occasionally belittled with sarcasm. A lesser attorney would have been rattled. But Jay stood his ground, refused to be intimidated by the justices or his far more experienced adversaries and won the day.


Q. Do you remember where you were when the ruling came down on June 27? In that pre-internet age, how did you find out about the decision and what was your reaction?

Grumet: It was the morning of June 27, 1994. At the same time that Jay got a call from the Supreme Court, I got a call from John Caher, then a local reporter and the co-author of the book, advising that the Associated Press had just moved an alert that we had won 6-3. In short order, our antiquated fax machine awoke and started spitting out the decision, all 65 pages, at a painfully slow pace. I was elated, wired, exhausted and immensely curious: As important as it was to prevail, it was just as important in the long run for the court to embrace the reasoning we had advanced and uphold the separation of church and state. The suspense was killing us. And that miserable fax machine was an instrument of torture.


Q. Recently stories have come to light about Hasidic communities in Monsey, Ramapo and other communities where ultra-Orthodox have taken control of public school boards and appear to be diverting as much tax money as possible to private yeshivas. It looks like the public schools are being bled dry. What, if anything, can be done about this?

Grumet: I find it very, very worrisome. I fear that political timidity has caused the state education officials to fear empowered religious special interests and to not enforce the existing laws that ensure separation of church and state. It is not the laws that are lacking, it is the will to enforce them. I am equally troubled that the broader community and the religious groups are beginning to view each other as enemies, just as Madison feared.  A good dose of the Golden Rule – on both sides – would prevent a lot of anger and litigation. I just pray that it doesn’t devolve into violence but fear that it will.


Q. Some years after your case was decided, the Supreme Court upheld school vouchers in a case from Ohio. Since then, we’ve seen a steady stream of these plans in states across the country, and Con­gress even passed a voucher plan for the District of Columbia. You’ve been fighting this battle for a long time. How concerned should we be about the future of public education in America?

Grumet: Nobody likes paying for government services they don’t benefit from personally. People who don’t drive don’t like paying highway taxes. People who don’t swim don’t like paying for public swimming pools. And people who opt to send their children to private schools don’t like having to support public education. But we all benefit societally from these government programs, and if they are undermined we will all pay a price.

Fifty years ago, most families had children in the public schools. Now many families have no children. So, yes, I am concerned about the future of public education and hope that a proper balance can be struck. To the extent the voucher issue involves religion, I think we need to be ever mindful of the dangers of intermingling religion and government. The balance between freedom and ty­ranny is delicate. I think too many people, and too many pandering politicians, have forgotten the essential importance of keeping church and state separate. Tyrants come in all sorts of forms. Sometimes they wear a crown. Sometimes they wear a clerical cloak. The most dangerous are those who wear both a crown and a cloak.        

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