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


New York State passed a statute creating a public school district that was coterminous with the boundaries of the Village of Kiryas Joel. Kiryas Joel's entire population consisted of adherents of the Satmar Hasidim, a traditional and insular sect of orthodox Judaism. Most Satmar children attended private religious schools. The public school district was established to meet the needs of Satmar children with disabilities that entitled them to publicly funded special education. The Supreme Court held that the creation of the school district under these circumstances violated the first amendment prohibition on the establishment of religion.

Justice david h. souter's opinion (for a majority of the Court on some issues and only a plurality on others) held that New York impermissibly favored religion over nonreligion, and one religious group over others, by drawing district lines explicitly to include members of the Satmar, and only them. New York could not constitutionally establish a separate school district to allow the Satmars to avoid educating their children among those who did not share their cultural practices, especially considering that there was no assurance in New York law that other culturally or religiously identifiable groups would be afforded a similar accommodation of religion in the future. Justice anthony m. kennedy concurred in the judgment. For him the constitutional infirmity in New York's creation of the school district was that it impermissibly drew the political boundaries defining the district on the basis of the religion of those who lived within it.

Justice antonin scalia, joined by two other Justices, forcefully dissented, arguing that the establishment clause was not implicated by the state's accommodation of the Satmars' cultural insularity. None of the sect's religious practices contributed to the village's desire not to educate Satmar children among nonadherents. The fact that those holding public authority happen to hold certain religious beliefs does not establish that they hold that authority because of those beliefs. To Scalia it was clear that the cultural insularity of the Satmars, and not their religious beliefs, had led to the accommodation. The dissenters also objected to the notion that, in order to justify a current accommodation, the state must somehow give assurances that it will provide similar accommodations in unknown future circumstances. In the wake of this decision, New York passed general laws permitting incorporation of school districts; although the matter is not without doubt, it appears likely that a new school district formed pursuant to the amended law will pass muster with a majority of the Supreme Court.

The situation leading up to the creation of the Kiryas Joel school district was the product of the Court's decision in aguilar v. felton (1985), which held that it was unconstitutional for the state to fund special education for handicapped children in sectarian schools. The Satmar children with special education needs, who theretofore had attended programs at an annex to their religious school, were thus forced to attend programs with nonadherents, a situation that they and the other students found disruptive. In response, the state created the Kiryas Joel school district. The rule in Aguilar proved unenduring, however, as the Court overruled that decision in agostini v. felton (1997). If Aguilar had been decided correctly in the first place, the entire saga of Kiryas Joel would have been avoided. For the future, the annex alternative is likely once again available.

William K. Kelley

(see also: Government Aid to Religious Institutions.)

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