Book 49: The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel



"What a wonderful tribute to the US Constitution that a minority subculture with traditions, habits, beliefs, and practices that are so different from the prevailing culture can flourish and live their lives as they wish, unfettered by the majority."

Dates read: May 5-7, 2016

Rating: 6/10

Before I went to law school, one of the reasons I wanted to go was because I loved reading about and studying the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. I've already outed myself as a big giant nerd, so there's more fuel for the fire, eh? Growing up in a small, conservative town, I felt like an outsider because I didn't go to church on a regular basis (I was raised Catholic but stopped attending mass during middle school, and by the time I hit high school, I identified as agnostic). I studied everything I could about the separation of church and state, especially in schools, and dreamed about arguing the issue in court one day. It didn't work out that way, obviously, but I've retained a real interest in the topic.

Louis Grumet's The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel tells the inside story of one of the Supreme Court's Establishment Clause cases: Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet. That's the same Grumet in both places: he was the president of the New York State School Boards Association at the time a law was passed in the New York State Legislature creating a school district for a small village in upstate New York that was home exclusively to the Satmar, a sect of strict Hasidic Jews. The Satmar, a community that previously lived in Brooklyn but found the modern world to be too intrusive in the middle of New York City, bought up large chunks of land outside a town called Monroe and founded a village that they called Kiryas Joel after their leader, a rabbi who had survived the Holocaust. They shunned contact with the outside, established their own private yeshivas to educate their children, and caused a lot of strife within the larger Monroe community by doing things like blatantly ignoring building codes with impunity, crying anti-Semitism anytime they were challenged. The issue arose because, like any small group that intermarries extensively, there came to be many children with genetic disorders and resultant learning disabilities. The Satmar were not equipped to educate these children, so they sought to take advantage of the legal obligation of the Monroe school district to provide appropriate education to the local children and sent their kids to public school. It did not go well: the children, who already had special needs, struggled in a radically different environment and the district made several problematic blunders. The Satmar kids were pulled out of the district, and an idea was hatched: to give the village its own district, which would be able to take in and spend public money for the education of these children.

That's a problem under the Establishment Clause, because the law was designed to benefit and was exclusive to one particular religious group. So why would this bill have even been drafted? And then passed? And then signed? The answer: politics! The Satmar are a relatively small group, but they're powerful: they vote as a bloc the way their rabbi tells them to...and they don't have an ideological purity test to pass. They support whoever helps steer money and services to them. Politicians like winning elections, and so they're willing to do what they can to lock down those votes. Grumet was there as it all was happening, and guides the reader through the process: fleshing out the details of who the Satmar are, how they came to settle at Kiryas Joel, their conflicts with the local population, why sending their kids to public school failed, and how the bill came to be conceived and passed.

A lot of the political behind-the-scenes stuff was familiar and understandable to me as someone who does this kind of thing for a living, but if that's not you, Grumet lays it out in a way that's logical and easy to follow. I think a lot of people don't quite understand how the sausage is made (I know I didn't before I started doing what I do), and the way Grumet tells the story helps shed light on the process. He also helps illuminate what it actually means to take a case to the Supreme Court: it starts small, with a lawsuit in district court, and goes up from there. The court portion of the book is actually the weakest part...it mostly copies and pastes sections of transcripts to show the arguments made and the decisions reached. 

At the end of the day, this book is almost certain to only be interesting to those already inclined to enjoy the subject matter. Some broader context is provided, but the story is almost entirely about this situation and case and doesn't go out of its way to make it easy to understand the legal issues if you're a layperson. It's not especially well-written, and suffers for Grumet's insistence on telling his own story as much as the case's story. It's not a bad book per se, but it isn't one I'd recommend to anyone but people with some already existing background and interest in the subject matter.

Tell me, blog friends...is there a Supreme Court case you'd be interested in reading a history of?

One year ago, I was reading: Primitive Mythology

**I received a free copy of this book from the publisher, Chicago Review Press, through Edelweiss in exchange for a fair and honest review**

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