The Hasidic School District That Was Created in Secret

New York Times


Even most New Yorkers have forgotten that Congress passed the Bill of Rights in New York. According to “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, $27.99), New York State is also where the “establishment clause” of the First Amendment’s freedom of religion protections was cynically abridged exactly two centuries later.

Written by Louis Grumet with John Caher, the book recounts the political and constitutional maneuvering behind a state law passed in 1989 empowering the Satmar Hasidic enclave in Orange County to establish its own public school system.

The insular, muscularly politically incorrect Satmars in the village of Kiryas Joel wanted, as the authors write, to have their cake and eat it, too — that is, to segregate the village from secular society while wringing every public service it might be entitled to from government.

That presented a predicament: How to pay for the education of students with special needs who were ostracized because of their religious reclusiveness when they were assigned to classes in the secular school district.

The State Constitution bars direct aid to parochial schools; the First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits government from passing any legislation that establishes a religion or prefers one to another.

The authors recount how Democrats in Brooklyn, where the Satmar sect is based; George E. Pataki, then a Republican assemblyman in the Hudson Valley who was wooing the Hasidim, who vote as a bloc; and Gov. Mario M. Cuomo worked to establish “the first governmental unit in American history that was created solely to serve the needs and interests of only one religious group” — certain that the courts would overturn their largess.

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