Rules Are for Schmucks: The Danger of Religious Enclaves

Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill used to say that “all politics is local.” So are most concerns about religious privilege, especially when communities become dominated by gangs of God experts anxious to throw their weight around.

This month’s item of interest comes from the East Ramapo School District in Rockland County, New York. This community has a high proportion of Jews, enough to be able to elect five out of the seven members of the school board. Nothing wrong with that per se, but an overwhelming proportion of the Jewish parents there send their 24,000 children to private religious schools (where boys and girls are segregated) rather than to the public schools the school board runs; the 9,000 students remaining in the public schools are overwhelmingly non-Jewish. Nothing wrong with that, either. But when you look at how the Jewish-dominated school board is running the public schools serving primarily non-Jewish students, you find things like the slashing of hundreds of jobs (including all special education teachers, guidance counselors, and social workers) and the elimination of full-time kindergarten, summer school, high school sports, drama, and AP programs, all while increasing spending on transportation and special education for the primarily Jewish children in religious schools. Transportation spending for religious school students shot up by an amazing 77 percent since 2007, more than triple the statewide transportation cost increase. Meanwhile, only 14 percent of the district’s public school eighth-graders passed this year’s state reading tests, a rate lower than half the statewide rate and substantially lower than the rate for New York’s minority students.

The school board president’s response to upset parents: “You don’t like it? Find another place to live.”

If this were a southern town where the white kids went to private schools and the white school board started shifting tax money away from the black-majority public schools to the exclusively white private schools, the press and the civil rights enforcement agencies would be all over it. As well they should. But when the discrimination is religion-based, the kid gloves go on, and politicians run for the shadows.

A petition from non-Jewish parents got the attention of at least a few members of the New York legislature, who pushed for a much-needed state veto power over East Ramapo school board decisions, as recommended by the former prosecutor commissioned to examine the situation. Heavy religious lobbying put an end to that idea, though, and all that’s going to happen is the appointment of another committee—with no power—to continue deep study. The committee doesn’t even have the authority to attend executive sessions of the school board, where most of its decisions are made.

Lakewood, New Jersey, presents a similar situation. An article in USA Today last week describes the dramatic Jewish population growth there, noting that “Once diverse, middle-class neighborhoods are now strung with wires suspended by poles that designate the boundaries of an eruv, an enclosed area where certain activities forbidden during the Jewish Sabbath are permitted.…Today, Orthodox residents occupy the majority of seats on virtually every decision-making board in town. Behind the scenes, a group of Orthodox rabbis and merchants called the Vaad helps shape the blueprint for the town.” Tax-exempt religious properties now make up 8 percent of Lakewood’s total assessed value; in neighboring Tom’s River, the figure is 1.5 percent. The Lakewood school district is already subject to the state veto power that New York refused to impose on East Ramapo.

Jewish God experts are not the only ones to abuse political power. In Florida, Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan created the town of Ave Maria as a Catholic ghetto. One key element of the town, according to Monaghan himself, is “if you go to the drug store and you want to buy the pill or the condoms or contraception, you won’t be able to get that in Ave Maria Town.” He meant it. When Naples Community Hospital sought to open a clinic to serve Ave Maria’s residents, it was blocked because of its insistence on making contraceptive services available along with other forms of medical care. A bizarre and dangerous law signed by Governor Jeb Bush in 2004, reminiscent of Middle Ages theocracy, guarantees that residents of Ave Maria will never have rights to democratic control that residents of other towns have and will always be under the thumb of the original Catholic development group.

The Christian right never tires of ranting about the alleged Muslim control of Dearborn, Michigan. This appears to be completely false. Keep in mind, though, that Dearborn is only about 30 percent Arab-American, and not all Arab-Americans are Muslim. By my math, 30 percent doesn’t constitute control. In England, where the Muslim population is higher, there are more troubling instances of Muslim neighborhoods being posted (extra-legally) as “sharia-controlled zones,” of rapidly expanding sharia law courts abusing Muslim women, of schools where the students cannot tell the difference between sharia law and English law, and of the national law society issuing guidelines (later withdrawn) for how to write “sharia compliant wills” that systematically discriminate against women and apostate or illegitimate children.

All this makes the Protestant-dominated American towns that fly the Christian flag on public buildings paid for by Christians and non-Christians alike seem tame by comparison.

While exiled in England in the eighteenth century, Voltaire wrote admiringly that “If there were only one religion in England there would be danger of despotism; if there were two they would cut each other’s throats. But there are thirty, and they live in peace and happiness.” An exaggeration, but his basic point about the risk of religious monopoly is spot on. Jews must be free to live wherever they want to live, including next to one another. So must Catholics, Muslims, snake-worshippers, or anyone else. But only the most rigorous attention to squeezing all religion out of civil government can prevent the abuses that arise when a single clique of God experts is able to seize political control.