High court voids school district for Jewish sect

June 28, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- An emotionally split Supreme Court ruled yesterday that it is unconstitutional for government to do special favors for a specific religious group, as the justices struck down a public school district that was set up to serve only a community of Hasidic Jews.

The decision indicated that five justices want to reconsider and perhaps overturn two prior rulings that had curbed public aid to religious schools.

Yesterday's case involved Hasidic Jews in Monroe, N.Y., who sought a public school of their own to teach their disabled children. The five justices said that the past rulings had led to the creation of the Kiryas Joel Village School District in Orange County, 40 miles northwest of New York City.

Moreover, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor -- a leader of the court's controlling centrist bloc -- urged her colleagues to abandon the formula that the justices have used since 1971 to weigh issues involving government and religion.

But it was not clear that there is a majority to do that, although five justices from time to time have criticized that formula.

The vote yesterday to nullify the special school district was 6-3, but the majority was split among three opinions.

Justice David H. Souter, who wrote the main majority opinion, drew the wrath and sarcasm of Justice Antonin Scalia, author of the dissenting opinion.

Using scathing ridicule, Mr. Scalia accused Mr. Souter of using "preposterous" and "misleading" arguments, of making a case that "could scarcely be weaker," and of reaching a "pernicious" and "astounding" result.

Government vs. religion issues have kept the court in turmoil for years. And the new ruling showed that the court is no closer to agreeing on the core constitutional questions or on a new approach to those controversies.

Yesterday's decision was one of the court's final rulings before it recesses for the summer.

It will finish its term Thursday, with rulings expected on the rights of protesters at abortion clinics, on major death penalty questions and on voting rights disputes.

Reaction to the school decision was divided. Americans United for Separation of Church and State called the ruling "a significant victory for religious freedom," barring segregation in public schools along religious lines.

But the American Center for Law and Justice said it was a "disturbing and dangerous" decision "in the fight to guarantee freedom of religion for all people of faith."

Satmar Hasidim

The case grew out of years of controversy in Monroe, N.Y., where a group of Jews who are adherents of Satmar Hasidim, a strict form of traditional Judaism, settled after migrating from Brooklyn.

The sect prefers to stay apart from other communities, wears conservative clothing and hair styles, speaks Yiddish, and watches no television. Members teach their children in parochial schools segregated by sex.

For a time, their disabled children were taught in a special public school operated by the Monroe school district in a classroom set up next to the girls' parochial school.

That arrangement was abandoned after two Supreme Court rulings in 1985 -- one that barred the use of public school teachers from teaching extra classes at private religious schools and another that barred payment of public school teachers' salaries when they taught children from poor families at parochial schools.

Re-examination

Those were the two rulings that five justices said yesterday should be re-examined and possibly cast aside. Favoring the re-examination were Justice O'Connor and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and three others. They were opposed by Justice Scalia, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas.

In 1989, the New York state legislature allowed the Satmar Jews to create their own school district, just for their disabled youngsters. The district followed the boundaries of the Hasidic village.

In the three opinions that spoke for the majority yesterday, the district was held unconstitutional because it meant that government was turning over its power to a religious group, because it was a form of legislation defined by religious identity and because it amounted to religious favoritism unlikely to be extended to other sects.

Besides Justice Souter, Justice O'Connor and Justice Kennedy, the majority included Justice Harry A. Blackmun, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice John Paul Stevens.

Although recent court majorities in religion cases have relied on a three-part formula devised in a 1971 ruling, Justice Souter's opinion yesterday seldom mentioned that formula.

Under that approach, government acts unconstitutionally if it intentionally supports a religion, if its actions have the effect of aiding religion, or if its acts cause it to become "entangled" with religion.

fTC

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