Founded by graduates of ultra-Orthodox schools in the U.S., the organization YAFFED seeks to force these schools to provide a more comprehensive secular education. Its claims that many of these institutions’ curricula don’t meet the minimum requirements imposed by New York State law have led to increased scrutiny from the state’s department of education. But more important to the future of the yeshivas, and of religious liberty, is a court case recently brought by YAFFED that challenges the constitutionality of existing legislative carve-outs for religious schools. Michael A. Helfand comments;
So far, New York State has ruled to preserve the right to religious practice in areas ranging from schools to dietary laws. But that precedent is being slowly reversed in court cases and legal arguments that hinge on reinterpreting some of the Constitution’s foundational precepts and will have far-reaching consequences both for religious communities and for broader attitudes toward the freedoms to which they’re entitled. . . .
To get a flavor of the real-world impact of this argument, consider the following. Federal law currently requires all forms of animal slaughter to be “humane.” Under typical circumstances, that means before an animal is slaughtered, it has to be “rendered insensible to pain” by, for example, “gunshot or an electrical, chemical, or other means.” But on nearly all accounts, doing so would render the animal’s meat not kosher. Sensitive to this quandary, federal law also added the following: slaughter is humane if done “by slaughtering in accordance with the ritual requirements of the Jewish faith” as well as any other religion that adopts the Jewish rules for ritual slaughter.
Traditionally, legislatures have been able to modify laws so that they express the religious tolerance and pluralism that form the backbone of America’s value system. YAFFED, however, argues for the antithetical view that granting religious exemptions is not an admirable application of the Constitution’s religious-liberty principles but rather, evidence of privileging one religion over others and thus a violation of the First Amendment. . . .
There is an old legal adage: hard cases make bad law. Ultimately, the YAFFED lawsuit pits two core commitments against each other—the autonomy of religious families and communities to control the education of their children, and the responsibility of society to ensure that all its citizens have access to a meaningful education. Casting these values, like gladiators, into a constitutional death match raises the prospect that the devotion to protecting religious liberty, so essential to the American project, will suffer as collateral damage.