Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet


Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet presents a somewhat unusual controversy as far as church-state suits are concerned. The Supreme Court was asked to rule on a legislative enactment that represented an attempt to provide necessary special education services to children with disabilities who belonged to a religious sect whose dictates prevented the children from mingling with others who did not share their beliefs. Even though the legislation had a secular purpose, the Supreme Court struck it down, in part, because it saw that the inadvertent message created by the legislation could be one of endorsing a particular religion.

Facts of the Case


Following a long legal dispute over the delivery of special education services to students who attended a religious school operated by the Satmar Hasidic Sect, the New York State legislature enacted a statute that created a school system with boundaries that were contiguous with the sect’s village. The sole public school in the district was to provide educational services to students with disabilities. Not surprisingly, the creation of the district led to legal challenges.
A state trial court, in Grumet v. New York State Education Department (1992), found that the law creating the school district for the purpose of providing special education services to the students violated the Establishment Clauses of both the federal and state constitutions. The court wrote that the law violated all three prongs of the Supreme Court’s Lemon v. Kurtzman test because it had a sectarian rather than a secular purpose; it was enacted to meet the religious needs of the sect; and it had the effect of advancing, protecting, and fostering the religious beliefs of the community. The court concluded that the law fostered excessive entanglement with religion in that public officials had to take steps to ensure that public funds were not spent furthering religious purposes.
On further review, an intermediate state appellate court affirmed. Noting that the challenged statute was designed not just to provide special education services to the children in the village but also to offer them in a manner so that the students would remain subject to the language, lifestyle, and environment created by the community of Satmar Hasidim, the court agreed that the statute violated the federal and state constitutions. The court emphasized that the statute authorized a religious community to dictate where secular public educational services should be provided to children of the community.
Thus, the court maintained that the law created the type of symbolic impact that is impermissible under the second prong of Lemon. That symbolic union, according to the court, was likely to be perceived by the Satmar Hasidim as an endorsement of their religion and by others as a disapproval of their own individual religious beliefs. The impermissible effect, in the court’s view, was the symbolic impact of creating a new school district, the boundaries of which were coterminous with a religious community, to provide educational services that were already available, inasmuch as the original dispute between the religious community and the public school system was based on the religious tenets, practices, and beliefs of the community.
The state’s highest court also affirmed. In Grumet v. Board of Education of the Kiryas Joel Village School District (1993), the judges agreed that the statute authorized a religious community to dictate where secular public educational services would be provided while creating the type of impermissible symbolic impact that the second prong of Lemon forbade. In view of the fact that only Hasidic children would attend the schools in the district, and only members of the sect were likely to serve as school board members, the court agreed that this symbolic union of church and state was likely to be viewed as an endorsement of the sect’s religious choices and by others as a disapproval of their own individual religious choices.

The Court’s Ruling


On further review, the Supreme Court also affirmed in Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet (1994). Writing for the majority, Justice David Souter held that the state law departed from the constitutional mandate of neutrality toward religion by delegating the state’s discretionary authority over public schools to a group defined by its character as a religious community in a context that gave no assurance that governmental power would be exercised neutrally. Souter wrote that a state may not delegate its civic authority to a group chosen according to religious criteria. Insofar as authority over public schools belongs to the state, it cannot be delegated to a local school district defined by the state to grant political control to a religious group, according to the Court.
Consequently, the Court decided that the law resulted in a forbidden fusion of governmental and religious functions, because the statute delegated power to an electorate defined by common religious belief and practice. In the final analysis, the majority determined that the state statute crossed the line from permissible accommodation to impermissible establishment.
Shortly after the Supreme Court ruled in Kiryas Joel, the New York State legislature modified the statute in attempt to address the constitutional infirmities. However, all three branches of the New York State courts again invalidated the law (Grumet v. Cuomo, 1997; Grumet v. Pataki, 1999a) and the Supreme Court refused to hear a further appeal (Grumet v. Pataki (1999b).
Allan G. Osborne, Jr.

See also First Amendment; Lemon v. Kurtzman; State Aid and the Establishment Clause
Legal Citations
  • Grumet v. New York State Education Department, 579 N.Y.S.2d 1004 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1992), aff’d, 592 N.Y.S.2d 123 (N.Y. App. Div. 1992), aff’d as modified sub nom. Grumet v. Board of Education of the Kiryas Joel Village School District, 601 N.Y.S.2d 61 (N.Y. 1993), aff’d sub nom. Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet, 512 U.S. 687 (1994).
  • Grumet v. Cuomo, 659 N.Y.S.2d 173 (N.Y. 1997).
  • Grumet v. Pataki, 697 N.Y.S.2d 846 (N.Y. 1999a), cert. denied, 528 U.S. 946 (1999b).
  • Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971).