Forthcoming in Leslie Griffin, ed., Law and Religion: Cases in Context (Aspen, 2010).


The case of Kiryas Joel School District v. Grumet, handed down by the Supreme Court in 1994, involving the quest of a religious group to establish its own public school, attracted national attention. Seemingly, the Supreme Court vindicated the civil libertarian position that creating a public school district in the religiously homogeneous village of Kiryas Joel, established and populated exclusively by members of the Satmar sect of ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews, constituted a violation of the principle of separation between church and state embodied in the establishment clause. In fact, the Court's decision did no such thing. Instead, it offered a jumble of opinions, invalidating the New York statute that authorized the establishment of a school district in Kiryas Joel on narrow (and confused) grounds, which permitted the state to renew its authorization of the Kiryas Joel Public School District with the passage of a new statute designed not to single out the Satmar community for special benefit. This essay, part of a book series on landmark law and religion cases intended for students, explores the background to the case as well as its convoluted reasoning. It argues that the contradictions and ambiguities exhibited in the judicial opinions issued in this case reflect unresolved tensions within the Court's jurisprudence concerning Establishment Clause ideals, in particular, a tension between one line of reasoning which frowns upon state support for religious group separatism and another line of reasoning, currently more dominant, which permits, even encourages, group separatism so long as every group as an equal opportunity to engage in separatist practices. The essay situates this tension in the Court's reasoning in the larger split emerging in the culture at large in the 1980s and the 1990s between newly fashionable multiculturalist/communitarian, and older civil libertarian integrationist ideals.


Constitutional Law | Religion Law

Date of this Version

July 2009