512 U.S. 687 (1994), 93-517, Board of Ed. of Kiryas Joel Village School Dist. v. Grumet

Docket Nº:Case No. 93-517
Citation:512 U.S. 687, 114 S.Ct. 2481, 129 L.Ed.2d 546, 62 U.S.L.W. 4665
Case Date:June 27, 1994
Court:United States Supreme Court

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512 U.S. 687 (1994)

114 S.Ct. 2481, 129 L.Ed.2d 546, 62 U.S.L.W. 4665




Case No. 93-517

United States Supreme Court

June 27, 1994[*]

Argued March 30, 1994



The New York village of Kiryas Joel is a religious enclave of Satmar Hasidim, practitioners of a strict form of Judaism. Its incorporators intentionally drew its boundaries under the State's general village incorporation law to exclude all but Satmars. The village fell within the Monroe-Woodbury Central School District until a special state statute, 1989 N. Y. Laws, ch. 748, carved out a separate district that follows village lines. Although the statute gives a locally elected school board plenary authority over primary and secondary education in the village, the board currently runs only a special education program for handicapped children; other village children attend private religious schools, which do not offer special educational services. Shortly before the new district began operations, respondents and others brought this action claiming, inter alia, that Chapter 748 violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The state trial court granted summary judgment for respondents, and both the intermediate appellate court and the New York Court of Appeals affirmed, ruling that Chapter 748's primary effect was impermissibly to advance religion.


The judgment is affirmed. 81 N.Y.2d 518, 618 N.E.2d 94, affirmed.

Justice Souter delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts II-B, II-C, and III, concluding that Chapter 748 violates the Establishment Clause. Pp. 702-710.

(a) Because the Kiryas Joel Village School District did not receive its new governmental authority simply as one of many communities eligible for equal treatment under a general law, there is no assurance that the next religious community seeking a school district of its own will receive one. The anomalously case-specific creation of this district for a religious community leaves the Court without any way to review such state action for the purpose of safeguarding the principle that government should not prefer one religion to another, or religion to irreligion. Nor can the historical context furnish any reason to suppose that the Satmars

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are merely one in a series of similarly benefited communities, the special Act in these cases being entirely at odds with New York's historical trend. Pp. 702-705.

(b) Although the Constitution allows the State to accommodate religious needs by alleviating special burdens, Chapter 748 crosses the line from permissible accommodation to impermissible establishment. There are, however, several alternatives for providing bilingual and bicultural special education to Satmar children that do not implicate the Establishment Clause. The Monroe-Woodbury school district could offer an educationally appropriate program at one of its public schools or at a neutral site near one of the village's parochial schools, and if the state legislature should remain dissatisfied with the local district's responsiveness, it could enact general legislation tightening the mandate to school districts on matters of special education or bilingual and bicultural offerings. Pp. 705-708.

Justice Souter, joined by Justice Blackmun, Justice Stevens, and Justice Ginsburg, concluded in Part II-A that by delegating the State's discretionary authority over public schools to a group defined by its common religion, Chapter 748 brings about an impermissible "fusion" of governmental and religious functions. See Larkin v. Grendel's Den, Inc., 459 U.S. 116, 126, 127. That a religious criterion was the defining test is shown by the legislature's undisputed knowledge that the village was exclusively Satmar when the statute was adopted; by the fact that the creation of such a small and specialized school district ran uniquely counter to customary districting practices in the State; and by the district's origin in a special and unusual legislative Act rather than the State's general laws for school district organization. The result is that the legislature has delegated civic authority on the basis of religious belief rather than on neutral principles. Pp. 696-702.

Justice Kennedy, agreeing that the Kiryas Joel Village School District violates the Establishment Clause, concluded that the school district's real vice is that New York created it by drawing political boundaries on the basis of religion. See, e. g., Shaw v. Reno, 509 U.S. 630, 648-649. There is more than a fine line between the voluntary association that leads to a political community comprised of people who share a common religious faith, and the forced separation that occurs when the government draws explicit political boundaries on the basis of peoples' faith. In creating the district in question, New York crossed that line. Pp. 728-730.

Souter, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II-B, II-C, and III, in which Blackmun, Stevens, O'Connor, and Ginsburg, JJ., joined, and an opinion

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with respect to Parts II (introduction) and II-A, in which Blackmun, Stevens, and Ginsburg, JJ., joined. Blackmun, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 710. Stevens, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which Blackmun and Ginsburg, JJ., joined, post, p. 711. O'Connor, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. 712. Kennedy, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 722. Scalia, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Thomas, J., joined, post, p. 732.

Nathan Lewin argued the cause for petitioners in Nos. 93-517 and 93-527. With him on the briefs was Lisa D. Burget.

Julie S. Mereson, Assistant Attorney General of New York, argued the cause for petitioners in No. 93-539. With her on the briefs were G. Oliver Koppell, Attorney General, Jerry Boone, Solicitor General, and Peter H. Schiff, Deputy Solicitor General. Lawrence W. Reich and John H. Gross filed briefs for petitioner Board of Education of the Monroe-Woodbury Central School District.

Jay Worona argued the cause for respondents in all cases. With him on the brief was Pilar Sokol.[- ]

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Justice Souter delivered the opinion of the Court, except as to Parts II (introduction) and II-A.

The village of Kiryas Joel in Orange County, New York, is a religious enclave of Satmar Hasidim, practitioners of a strict form of Judaism. The village fell within the Monroe-Woodbury Central School District until a special state statute passed in 1989 carved out a separate district, following village lines, to serve this distinctive population. 1989 N. Y. Laws, ch. 748. The question is whether the Act creating the separate school district violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, binding on the States through the Fourteenth Amendment. Because this unusual Act is tantamount to an allocation of political power on a religious criterion and neither presupposes nor requires governmental impartiality toward religion, we hold that it violates the prohibition against establishment.


The Satmar Hasidic sect takes its name from the town near the Hungarian and Romanian border where, in the early years of this century, Grand Rebbe Joel Teitelbaum molded the group into a distinct community. After World War II and the destruction of much of European Jewry, the Grand

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Rebbe and most of his surviving followers moved to the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York. Then, 20 years ago, the Satmars purchased an approved but undeveloped subdivision in the town of Monroe and began assembling the community that has since become the village of Kiryas Joel. When a zoning dispute arose in the course of settlement, the Satmars presented the Town Board of Monroe with a petition to form a new village within the town, a right that New York's Village Law gives almost any group of residents who satisfy certain procedural niceties. See N. Y. Village Law, Art. 2 (McKinney 1973 and Supp. 1994). Neighbors who did not wish to secede with the Satmars objected strenuously, and after arduous negotiations the proposed boundaries of the village of Kiryas Joel were drawn to include just the 320 acres owned and inhabited entirely by Satmars. The village, incorporated in 1977, has a population of about 8,500 today. Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, eldest son of the current Grand Rebbe, serves as the village rov (chief rabbi) and rosh yeshivah (chief authority in the parochial schools).

The residents of Kiryas Joel are vigorously religious people who make few concessions to the modern world and go to great lengths to avoid assimilation into it. They interpret the Torah strictly; segregate the sexes outside the home; speak Yiddish as their primary language; eschew television, radio, and English-language publications; and dress in distinctive ways that include headcoverings and special garments for boys and modest dresses for girls. Children are educated in private religious schools, most boys at the United Talmudic Academy where they receive a thorough grounding in the Torah and limited exposure to secular subjects, and most girls at Bais Rochel, an affiliated school with a curriculum designed to prepare girls for their roles as wives and mothers. See generally W. Kephart & W. Zellner, Extraordinary Groups (4th ed. 1991); I. Rubin, Satmar, An Island in the City (1972).

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These schools do not, however, offer any distinctive services to handicapped children, who are entitled under state and federal law to special education services even when enrolled in private schools. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. (1988 ed. and Supp.IV); N. Y. Educ. Law, Art. 89 (McKinney 1981 and Supp.1994). Starting in...

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