By a vote of 6-3, the Supreme Court held in this case that a public school district created to accommodate the disabled children of a particular religious sect violated the establishment clause because it failed the test of neutrality — that is, government cannot favor one religion over another.

New York created school district for disabled children of religious sect

Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet, 512 U.S. 687 (1994), centered on a New York law that created a school district to accommodate the needs of the Satmar Hasidic sect — practitioners of a strict form of Judaism — who lived in the village of Kiryas Joel. Initially, Satmar Hasidic children attended their own private religious schools. However, children with mental, physical, and emotional disabilities who needed special education were unable to obtain it because of its high cost for the private schools.

Original arrangements of providing special education in the religious schools was discontinued

Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and similar state laws, disabled students were entitled to receive special education whether they attended public or private schools. Thus the school board of the Monroe-Woodbury Central School District provided publicly funded instruction for these students in an annex of one of the religious schools.

In 1985, however, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down similar arrangements in Aguilar v. Felton and Grand Rapids School District v. Ball. The Satmar Hasidic program was therefore discontinued, and the school board required the children who needed special education to attend the public schools that could provide it.

Taxpayers claimed school district was limited only to religious village residents

But the Satmar parents did not want their children to attend public schools, citing the trauma their children suffered “in leaving their own community and being with people whose ways were so different.” To solve this problem, in 1989 the state of New York passed a special statute creating a separate district following village lines.

But taxpayers and the association of state school boards objected, and shortly before the new district began operations, they filed suit, claiming that the statute created a school district limited to the residents of Kiryas Joel. The state trial court, the intermediate appellate court, and the New York Court of Appeals agreed, ruling that the primary effect of the New York statute was to advance religion. The case then proceeded to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Court said the school district violated establishment clause of First Amendment

Justice David H. Souter delivered the majority opinion of the Court. Souter explained that states could not “deliberately delegate discretionary power to an individual, institution, or community on the ground of religious identity.” Creating the Kiryas Joel Village School District demonstrated favoritism toward a specific religion and therefore violated the principle of neutrality demanded by the establishment clause, particularly when other means of accommodating the disabled students were available.

As Souter also pointed out, “The fact that this school district was created by a special and unusual Act of the legislature also gives reason for concern whether the benefit received by the Satmar community is one that the legislature will provide equally to other religious (and nonreligious) groups.”

Unlike in previous establishment cases, Souter did not directly apply the Lemon test, as articulated in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971). He opted instead for the neutrality principle. Still, he cited approvingly the precedents from which the Lemon test was derived.

Other justices wrote separately to express their views on the appropriateness of the neutrality principle, the Lemon test, and other standards for adjudicating establishment claims. In his dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia also weighed in and explained that the “Founders of our Nation” would have been surprised that this “admirably American accommodation of religious practices of a tiny minority sect” was unconstitutional.

And he criticized Souter’s reasoning: “Once this Court has abandoned text and history as guides, nothing prevents it from calling religious toleration the establishment of religion.” Scalia did, however, like the fact that the Lemon test appeared to be losing adherents among members of the Court.

This article was originally published in 2009. Artemus Ward is professor of political science faculty associate at the college of law at Northern Illinois University. Ward received his Ph.D. from the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs at Syracuse University and served as a staffer on the House Judiciary Committee. He is an award-winning author of several books of the U.S. Supreme Court and his research and commentary have been featured in such outlets as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, NBC Nightly News, Fox News, and C-SPAN.

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