By Vynateya Purimetla (’21)
Zalman Rothschild’s commentary on the grey area between state education law, the Free Exercise Clause, and the hybrid-rights doctrine developed by Justice Scalia is a fascinating forum piece written for the Columbia Law Review. It masterfully circumnavigates through the complex web created by often contradicting legal precedents and explores a unique situation in which different agendas collide. Divided into three parts, the piece touches on Hasidic education in New York, New York education law, and free exercise jurisprudence respectfully.
The piece starts by introducing the issue. Hasidism, a sect of Orthodox Judaism, resists assimilation and attempts to protect practitioners from modern and secular influences. This results in Hasidic schools teaching non-religious material for less than an hour a day while focusing on religious teachings for nine hours. Due to this set-up, Hasidic schools lack the provision of a comprehensive education in basic skills. Most Hasidic students, in fact, lack basic math skills and can hardly read or write English even after they graduate. This issue has long been unknown to the public, though, as few people have access to the secluded Hasidic community.
In the second part of Rothschild’s piece, he delves into the issue of Hasidic schools’ contradiction of New York state law and the limitations of religious freedom. First he brings up the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, Inc. v. State, in which the Court of Appeals upheld that the state of New York necessitates a basic education for all students. All reports, however, put forth that Hasidic schools fail to provide this basic education and are thus in violation of state law. However, an orthodox Jewish senator championed the “Felder Amendment” issued on April 2018 which provided exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools. Following this, there has been back-and-forth cases between education advocate groups like YAFFED and Hasidic schools. Rothschild argues that advocates for Hasidic education have shifted their position from defensive in protecting the amendment to offensive in challenging new legislation about free exercise grounds.
The third part of this piece, the longest, goes into detail about the constitutional issues implicated by the Hasidic offensive and possible solutions to minimize negative externalities and create the most mutually beneficial compromise for New York and Hasidic schools. Two cases that are very prevalent here are Smith and Yoder. The basic premise of Smith is that neutral laws discussing religious liberties do not needed heightened investigation from the government. In Yoder, a precedent was set that compulsory education statutes were unconstitutional as applied to the Amish (an Orthodox religious group). Any new religion-education case that relies on these two seemingly contradictory cases is often left to the discretion of the appellate court and judge to make a decision as this hybrid-rights doctrine is impossible to clearly apply to all cases. Rothschild discusses parental control legislation and governmental scrutiny as it applies to enforcing secular education to conclude the final component of the forum piece.
For Rothschild’s brief conclusion, he recognizes that competing interests implicated in a case like Hasidic education is a grey area between state education law, the Free Exercise Clause, and the hybrid-rights doctrine developed by Justice Scalia. In Rothschild’s conclusion, he makes a beautiful point about liberty being the ability to have meaningful options in life which requires a basic secular education.