The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel

The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel
The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel

The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel

The Rise of a Village Theocracy and the Battle to Defend the Separation of Church and State
By Louis Grumet, By John M. Caher, Foreword by Judith S. Kaye


304 Pages, 6 x 9

Formats: Cloth, EPUB, Mobipocket, PDF

Cloth, $27.99 (US $27.99) (CA $33.99)

ISBN 9781613735008

Rights: WOR

Chicago Review Press (Apr 2016)


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Twenty years ago, on the last day of session, the New York State Legislature created a publicly funded school district to cater to the interests of a religious sect called Kiryas Joel, an extremely insular group of Hasidic Jews. The sect had bought land in upstate New York, populated it solely with members of its faction, and created a village that exerted extraordinary political pressure over both political parties in the Legislature. Marking the first time in American history that a governmental unit was established for a religious group, the Legislature’s action prompted years of litigation that eventually went to the Supreme Court. The 1994 case, The Board of Education of the Village of Kiryas Joel v. Grumet, stands as the most important legal precedent in the fight to uphold the separation of church and state. In The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel, plaintiff Louis Grumet opens a window onto the Satmar Hasidic community and details the inside story of his fight for the First Amendment. This story—a blend of politics, religion, cultural clashes, and constitutional tension—is an object lesson in the ongoing debate over freedom of vs. freedom from religion.


The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel highlights the First Amendment’s two, mutually reinforcing, religion clauses—the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause—and demonstrates the importance of both preserving religious liberty as well as freedom of conscience and equality for all of us, believers and non-believers alike. Lou Grumet exhibited great courage when he stood up for principle by persistently fighting against the most powerful politicians in New York State and for the First Amendment, all the way to the US Supreme Court. This book tells a fascinating story about why this struggle was so important for not only all freedom-loving individuals, but also our public school system, which plays such a key role in our democracy." —Nadine Strossen, John Marshall Harlan II Professor of Law at New York Law School and former president of the American Civil Liberties Union

The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel is a fascinating insider account of a small religious group—Satmar Hasidic Jews—that had established a self-governed village in upstate New York, violated the principle of church/state separation, and ended up losing a major case at the United States Supreme Court. Grumet and Caher are sensitive to the anti-Semitism that drove this group to insulate itself, but acutely aware of the danger to our Constitutional system their tactics generated—sometimes with the help of powerful political forces that should have known better." —Barry Lynn, executive director, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State

"In The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel, this extraordinarily interesting book by Lou Grumet and John Caher, we are given an insight, not only to the insular theocratic community of Kiryas Joel, but also to the judicial conundrum which it has presented to the high courts of New York State and the United States Supreme Court. We are also given a fascinating look at a politically powerful community in rural New York State populated by citizens of the Satmar Hasidic line where language, customs, and dress have led to a cultural estrangement from neighboring communities. Whether your passion is the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the uniqueness of this Satmar Hasidic sect, or the power that can enable a community to work ‘political magic,’ I highly recommend your reading this book.” —Sol Wachtler is a Distinguished Professor of Constitutional Law at Touro Law School, and a former Chief Judge of New York State

"Two hundred years after Jefferson and Madison engaged in an extraordinary debate over freedom OF religion vs. freedom FROM religion, The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel demonstrates how a small and insular religious group can grasp political power and perpetrate an outrageous end-run around the United States Constitution. This story - a blend of politics, religion, cultural clashes and constitutional tension - is an object lesson in the Establishment Clause at work.” —Eliot Spitzer, former attorney general and governor of New York State.

“This is a rare and valuable history of one of the most important First Amendment decisions in recent history. Louis Grumet’s engaging narrative takes readers behind the scenes to reveal the commitment, the tensions, the strategizing, and the judicial decision making that led to Supreme Court victory.” —Tony Mauro, Supreme Court correspondent for the National Law Journal

“The story of this epic court battle will fascinate those interested in the legal system as well as those intrigued by Albany politics . . . a readable look at the nitty-gritty of New York’s political machine.” —Kirkus

“This is a stand-up-and-cheer kind of book." —Voice of Reason

Author Biography

Louis Grumet is the former executive director of the New York State School Boards Association. He has previously held various positions including special assistant to then New York Secretary of State Mario Cuomo. John Caher is an award-winning writer specializing in legal reportage. He is the author or coauthor of five books including Personal Bankruptcy Laws for Dummies, King of the Mountain, and A Time for Reflection. Judith S. Kaye was the first woman to serve on New York’s highest court, the state’s chief judge for 15 years, and, at the time of her death in January 2016, of counsel to the Manhattan law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Leagher and Flom.