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Justices Ponder School District for Hasidim

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Can the government accommodate the wishes of a separatist religious sect by creating a special school district for its children? Or does the mere act of creating such a separate district violate the First Amendment’s ban on laws “respecting an establishment of religion?”

Those were the questions before the Supreme Court on Wednesday as the justices struggled to decide whether to uphold a New York state law carving out a school district for a Hasidic Jewish community.

The case (Kiryas Joel Village School District vs. Grumet, 93-517) has drawn wide attention because it could persuade the high court to blur the line separating church and state. Critics of the law claim that a ruling in favor of the Hasidim could foster “religious apartheid” in the United States as different sects press for separate public schools.

But during the hourlong argument, the justices sounded as though they wanted to avoid a broad pronouncement in either direction. Instead, they concentrated on narrow, factual questions.

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A lawyer representing the Hasidim argued that the special school district should be upheld because the Constitution envisions a “spirit of accommodation” among competing religions.

The school board in the village “operates a wholly secular public school,” with no religious teaching, said the attorney, Nathan Lewin, a prominent Washington lawyer.

The separate school district is needed, Lewin said, because Hasidic Jews, who speak Yiddish, would not send their children to regular classrooms with non-Hasidic children.

But a lawyer for the New York State School Board Assn. contended that the special school district unconstitutionally favors a religious sect.

The purpose of the law “was to create segregation along religious lines,” said attorney Jay Worona of Slingerlands, N.Y. “It will politically fragment this nation . . . if the government can separate people based on religion.”

Last year, the New York Court of Appeals agreed with the critics and ruled that the 1989 law that set up the separate district was unconstitutional. The law favors the wishes of one religious sect and creates a “symbolic union” between church and state, the state judges said.

But Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia disputed that view. They questioned why it would be unconstitutional for a Mormon community in Utah or an all-Catholic neighborhood in a major city to have its own public school.

“It seems to me you’re saying that, because all the (Hasidim) live together, they can’t exercise the ordinary secular authority” to run a public school system, Rehnquist told the lawyer challenging the district.

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But Justice Sandra Day O’Connor noted that the Hasidim benefited from a “special law” enacted just for them. “This isn’t neutral, broadly based law. It is limited to one situation,” she said, suggesting governmental favoritism for a sect.


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