Sunday, May 01, 2016

The Curious Case Of Kiryas Joel 

A Q&A With Louis Grumet

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?


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