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March 21, 2016 • Behind the Scenes
Behind the Scenes: Louis Grumet and John Caher, authors of The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel
Louis Grumet and John Caher are the authors of The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel: The Rise of a Village Theocracy and the Battle to Defend the Separation of Church and State. Here, they talk with us about their book—which reveals a true story that took place over 20 years ago—and why the case remains significant today.
The Supreme Court case regarding the small town of Kiryas Joel became a landmark account that threatened the First Amendment. Can you tell us briefly the history of the town, and what exactly they were requesting of the New York State government?
The Village of Kiryas Joel was established in the 1970s as something of a refuge by members of the Satmar Hasidic sect who sought, in essence, a religious and cultural oasis where their children would not have to mix with or be influenced by the outside world or the public schools. They bought up vacant farmland, slowly subdivided the land, and populated it solely with members of the group. Once they had the requisite 600 inhabitants, they invoked a little-known state law and declared the community a village–Kiryas Joel, or “village of Joel,” after the founder. They kept to themselves and, at first, simply wanted to be left alone to raise their families and educate their children, on their terms and in private schools, in this little enclave. A crisis arose because of the large number of disabled children in the village, and the villagers’ inability to provide expensive educational services. In 1989, they used their considerable political clout to persuade the New York State legislature and then Governor Mario Cuomo to give the sect a “public” school for special education, marking the first time in American history that a government unit was established for a religious organization. This school would be used only by the children of a theocratic village, and it would be funded primarily by state and federal tax dollars.
Can you explain why a group like the Satmar holds such significant political leverage?
Although the community is small, the residents almost uniformly vote as they are directed by the rabbi. Consequently, the rabbi is in a position to promise—and deliver—thousands of votes. They also contribute significantly to political candidates who fulfill their requests and, when so motivated, can spark a most effective phone bank. They have no allegiance to either party and will deliver their votes and money to, basically, the highest bidder.
How do the Satmar differ from other groups that choose to separate themselves from the rest of society, like the Amish, for example?
There is a huge difference. The Amish simply want to be left alone in their self-sufficiency and do not expect, or even want, government aid. Kiryas Joel likes to have its cake and eat it, too. It wants total isolation to the extent possible, but they also want every penny of taxpayer money they can get for education, health services, water treatment, housing, and bus transportation, you name it. To be clear, I do not object to their acceptance of government aid, any more than I object to any other citizen or community receiving aid. But when they demand taxpayer money to advance religious interests, that is a problem.
Lou, you had a close relationship with Governor Mario Cuomo at the time these initial events occurred. Please share with us the backstory of how you found yourself in the middle of this breach of ethics in the first place, and why you went on to become the plaintiff in the court case.
I worked for Mario Cuomo several years before these events occurred. At the time of their occurrence, I was the executive director of the New York State School Boards Association. I considered the governor a friend, mentor, and constitutional scholar, so I went to see him when I heard about the bill and asked him to veto it as a blatantly unconstitutional assault on the Establishment Clause. Governor Cuomo was dismissive with me and shrugged, “Who is going to sue me?” I told him I would, then convinced my association to take on, bravely, the most powerful man in the state. Then, I turned it over to our bright young lawyer, Jay Worona, who would live the case—and defeat the legal Goliaths sent to oppose him—for years to come.
This case took place in 1994—22 years ago. Why is now the time to be telling this story?
For one thing, church-state tension is a constant in American law and American politics, and this was a definitive Supreme Court case that set the boundaries of church-state relationships under the First Amendment. For another, just up the road from Kiryas Joel a similar sect is doing the same sort of thing in East Ramapo. There, the Hasidic community expanded to the point where it could and did take over the local school board, and proceeded to close schools and eliminate programs used largely by black and Hispanic families. It is a boiling cauldron, and in many ways Kiryas Joel was the blueprint. And finally, in recent years the Supreme Court has been rolling back the protections my case preserved, culminating in the 5–4 Hobby Lobby decision that effectively said corporations can impose religious restrictions on their employees. The architect of that backsliding was largely the recently deceased Justice Scalia, who wrote a scathing (and bombastic, I might add) dissent in the Kiryas Joel case. The political battle over Scalia’s successor comes at a crucial crossroad.
These days, hardly a month goes by without religious freedom being called into question in the news or in a courtroom—from companies that refuse to provide healthcare they object to, to businesses refusing to serve certain people, all based on so-called religious grounds. Do you see your case against Kiryas Joel acting as an important cautionary tale in these ongoing debates on what constitutes religious freedom?
Very much so! If we had lost the case, there would be no reason a group of religious extremists could not buy up vacant land, declare themselves a village, and then demand that the government give them a public school to indoctrinate their children. I firmly believe that if we had not pursued this case, the “wall of separation” that Thomas Jefferson urged between church and state would have begun crumbling. And we have ample evidence throughout history (both ancient and very recent) of what occurs when that happens–chaos, bloodshed and, ultimately, the end of liberty. The natural tension between freedom of religion and freedom from religion is perpetual, and those of us who believe in both rights—the right to worship (or not) as one sees fit and the right to be free from government-sanctioned religious interference—must be eternally vigilant. In the end, our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are at stake.
-compiled by Caitlin Eck
The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel officially publishes on April 1, 2016. It is available wherever books (and e-books) are sold.
“[A] readable look at the nitty-gritty of New York’s political machine.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Grumet passionately lets the reader know where he stands.”—Booklist