Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Village of Kiryas Joel lives to fight another day

Kiryas Joel is a village in Orange County, in my neck of the woods. The population is nearly 100 percent Hasidic, making the community something of an enclave quite unlike anyplace else in upstate New York. In 1994, the Supreme Court struck down the Kiryas Joel school district, finding that its existence violated the First Amendment's separation against church and state. Some Hasidic dissents in the community have tried over the years to strike down the existence of the village, but thus far they have been unsuccessful.

The case is Kiryas Joel Alliance v. Village of Kiryas Joel, a summary order issued on September 10. The village is an interesting place, and because of the dissident faction and the majority that runs the village, it has been the focus of extensive litigation over the years. Probably every other lawyer in Orange County has worked on at least one of these cases. The Second Circuit provides the backdrop:

The parties in this action and their various representatives have been embroiled in litigation in both state and federal courts for the past two decades. We briefly describe the genesis of their long-standing dispute, as it is described in the amended complaint. The Village of Kiryas Joel was incorporated in 1977 to serve as an enclave for followers of the Satmar Hasidic sect of Judaism. The Village is populated exclusively by followers of that sect, a majority of whom are members of defendant Congregation Yetev Lev D’Satmar of Kiryas Joel Plaintiffs are also followers of the Satmar Hasidic faith, but do not accept the legitimacy of Congregation Yetev’s current leader, the Grand Rebbe, Aron Teitelbaum, a relative of the original leader of the sect. Plaintiffs contend that because of their refusal to accept the current Grand Rebbe, they and other “dissidents” have been discriminated against in several ways by the Village, which, they allege, is run entirely by members of Congregation Yetev.
Plaintiffs also asserted an equal protection claim on the basis of intentional religious discrimination. The Second Circuit does not see it that way, even on this Rule 12 motion. "Plaintiffs have not plausibly alleged that defendants’ alleged actions were motivated by religious—as opposed to political—differences. Plaintiffs acknowledge that they share the same Satmar Hasidic faith as defendants, and the amended complaint does not identify different religious creeds adhered to by the majority faction and the 'dissident' population. Rather, as the district court concluded, the discord is, at its core, political. It reflects an acrimonious—but not essentially 'religious'—dispute over 'who should be the leader of . . . Satmar Hasidim.”

This case could have been quite explosive had the plaintiffs prevailed and convinced a federal court to strike down the village. As Judge Rakoff write in the district court opinion, "Plaintiffs, members of a 'dissident' population within defendant Village of Kiryas Joel, bring this action alleging that the Village is a 'theocracy,' the affairs of which are so 'inherently infused by, and entangled, with religion' that its 'very existence' violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment." But the case loses under Rule 12. The many cases that dissidents brought against the Village over the years create a res judicata problem in that past injustices have already been adjudicated by state courts. The plaintiff organization also lacks standing to protect the rights of non-members who may have been screwed by the Village leaders. As for the religious entanglement claim that predicates the dissolution claim, the Court of Appeals says that "plaintiffs’ current allegations about the overlapping leadership in the Village and Congregation Yetev, standing alone, are insufficient to state an Establishment Clause claim." 

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