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The Flawed Legal Reasoning That Says We Shouldn’t Force Secular Studies on Hasidic Jews

Writing in the Forward, Yitzchak Adlerstein and Michael Broyde recently argued that if New York State tried to force Satmar schools to provide an adequate secular education, the State would lose, because of a 1972 Supreme Court case, Wisconsin v. Yoder.

This is a profound misreading of the case.

In Yoder, the Court upheld the right of Amish parents not to school their children beyond eighth grade, despite an existing legal requirement for children to be educated until they reach either high school graduation or the age of sixteen. Adlerstein and Broyde believe that Yoder holds that “if their faith demands it, parents can deprive their children of any education at all.”

Yoder was decided by seven Justices (with Justice Powell and Justice Rehnquist recused). Although the decision was unanimous, the reasoning was quite varied. Chief Justice Burger wrote the opinion for the Court; there was a partial dissent by Justice Douglas and concurrences by Justice Stewart and Justice White.

The Court accepted Wisconsin’s “propositions” that education was required in order to prepare citizens to “participate effectively and intelligently in our open political system,” and to prepare them to be “self-reliant and self-sufficient,” but it nonetheless sided with the Amish.

How did the Court come to that decision, and how do its reasons relate to the current situation of Satmar education?

First, the Court noted that the Amish are “productive…members of society; they reject public welfare.” Wisconsin could not convincingly argue that Amish children would grow up to be dependent on the state.

In contrast, Hasidic groups are greatly dependent on public welfare. Kiryas Joel is the poorest town in America, with about half the families receiving food stamps and a third eligible for Medicaid and housing subsidies.

Second, the Court believed that the “additional one or two years” of education between completion of eighth grade and leaving school at sixteen were too slight to stand up against the Amish interest in the free exercise of their religion. White, in a concurrence joined by Brennan and Stewart, wrote, “This would be a very different case… if respondents’ claim were that their religion forbade their children from attending any school at any time and from complying in any way with the educational standards set by the State. Since the Amish children are permitted to acquire the basic tools of literacy to survive in modern society by attending grades one through eight, and since the deviation from the State’s compulsory education law is relatively slight, I conclude that respondents’ claim must prevail…”

But in the case of the Satmar, Skverer and similar groups, there is a large gap between actual learning and an adequate education. Whereas the Amish had full days of secular education from first through eighth grade, many Hasidic boys receive only 90 minutes of secular education a day, from third through eighth grade. According to Shulem Deen, regular Forward columnist and author of “All Who Go Do Not Return,” his two sons, raised in the Skverer town of New Square, cannot read, write or speak English, at ages 13 and 15.

White, echoing the concerns of Douglas in the latter’s partial dissent, defended the state’s obligation to support the potential of Amish children to reject their upbringing and to decide to become “nuclear physicists, ballet dancers, computer programmers, or historians,” or, in Douglas’s language, “pianists, astronauts, or oceanographers.” Thus, all the Justices relied on the small gap between what the state required and what the Amish children received.

At least four of the seven Justices believed that the proper role of the state is to “nurture and develop the human potential of its children… to expand their knowledge, broaden their sensibilities, kindle their imagination, foster a spirit of free inquiry, and increase their human understanding and tolerance… A State has a legitimate interest not only in seeking to develop the latent talents of its children, but also in seeking to prepare them for the lifestyle that they may later choose, or at least to provide them with an option other than the life they have led in the past.”

It’s hard to argue that Hasidic schools are set up to foster a spirit of free inquiry or to prepare boys for anything other than life within their community.

That’s why the facts in Yoder, taken together with the Justices’ reasoning, show that the Satmar would be very unlikely to prevail if their case were to come before the Court today.

Dena S. Davis is Professor of Religion Studies at Lehigh University. Until 2011 she was a Professor at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law (Cleveland State University). Her most recent book is “Genetic Dilemmas: Reproductive Technology, Parental Choices, and Children’s Futures.”

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