What rights do Hasidic schools have?

The recently published New York Times report on educational practices in some of New York’s Hasidic elementary and high schools, many of them run by Satmar Jewish groups, is prompting state and local officials to crack down on their alleged shortcomings. The response has sparked an angry reaction from many Jewish leaders.

Understanding this controversy forces us back to first principles.

No right is absolute, not even the free exercise of religion, because the government has fundamental interests that can override individual claims in some circumstances. Some of these interests relate to the time, place and manner in which rights are exercised. For example, local governments are empowered to maintain public order by prohibiting groups from conducting late-night religious revivals in residential areas.

In extreme cases, the government can ban forms of religious practice outright. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gave up polygamy in the 19th century under pressure from Washington, and apparently human sacrifice would never be tolerated.

In education, the courts have weighed the legitimate interests of believers against the wider community. US courts have long held that state governments can require all children to attend school up to a certain age and prescribe the core subjects that all children – whether in public, private or parochial schools – are expected to study. These basic requirements may include a significant amount of instruction in English. Schools may choose to add tuition above this baseline, but may not fall below it. If they do, the government can step in to enforce compliance. By acting in this case, the government is exercising its legitimate authority to educate its youth to become good citizens and contributing members of society.

But freedom of religion limits that authority. That was the issue in Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972). The state of Wisconsin required students to continue their education until age 16, which goes against the Amish practice of ending education at 14 and having young people assume adult responsibilities in society.

The Amish claimed that their faith was more than inner faith; it is exercised by attending to the responsibility of the common life. The state did not dispute this claim, but argued that its responsibility to educate the youth took priority.

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The Supreme Court rejected Wisconsin’s claim without denying the strength of the state’s argument. If Amish educational practices had failed to produce good citizens and contributing members of society, the Court likely would have sided with the state. But Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote for the court: “The record strongly indicates that accommodating the religious objections of the Amish by waiving one or at most two years of additional compulsory education will not impair the child’s physical or mental health or result in an inability to be self-supporting or to take care of the duties and responsibilities of citizenship, or otherwise significantly impair the welfare of society.”

This brings us to the current controversy over educational practices in some traditional and isolated Jewish communities. Richard Foltin, a respected Jewish leader and legal expert, argues that the court’s decision in Yoder should resolve the dispute between New York officials and the schools now under review. “If there’s a community comparable to the Amish, I’d say it’s the Hasidic communities in Brooklyn,” Mr. Foltin.

He is right – to a point. I agree that Yoder provides the right template for thinking about this controversy, but I doubt that the facts of the New York case will lead to the same result. State tests indicate that the schools in question have poorly served their students, who are mostly educated in Yiddish and emerge with little command of core subjects and no working knowledge of English.

If so, it would not be an accident. The leaders of these societies see the modern world as a threat to their way of life and do everything in their power to insulate their members from its effects. Education in secular subjects and the English language is a threat, a dangerous bridge to the outside world.

An impartial investigation is essential. As a condition of receiving public funding, students in these schools should be required to take New York State math and English tests in third and eighth grades, and all students should graduate with the ability to speak and read English.

The objections to the practices of these schools go beyond the legal. Although religious groups have the constitutional right to protect their communal practices, they are not allowed to imprison their youth by denying them the capacity to live elsewhere if they choose. This freedom is essential to American citizenship.

Members of these Jewish communities exercise the right to vote, which they use to advance their interests. In return, they must accept the responsibility of citizenship, which is not a one-way street.

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