Some NYC ultra-Orthodox yeshivas provide little or no secular education to their boys, who leave school illiterate in English and with third-grade math skills. They have never heard of the American Revolution, written an essay, or entered a science fair. They cannot pass the GED and are virtually unemployable outside of their community. Some of them learn to “write” English for the first time while practicing their signature for their marriage licenses. For the last few years I have been working with YAFFED (Young Americans for Fair Education) to try to force the city and state to do their job, investigate these schools, and make them adhere to state law, which mandates that all private schools deliver a “substantially equivalent” education to what is offered in public schools.
Anyone who follows my work knows that “the child’s right to an open future,” as articulated by philosopher Joel Feinberg, is an ongoing focus. Feinberg developed the concept in response to the famous 1972 case of Wisconsin v. Yoder, involving Amish who wanted an exemption from the state’s mandatory schooling law. I’ve applied the concept to reprogenetics, but I’ve never lost touch with the basic idea that every child has the right to an education.
Last week, YAFFED held a press conference to highlight the fact that we have been waiting four years for the state to release a promised report on these yeshivas. (Two years ago, tired of waiting, we wrote and released our own: http://www.yaffed.org/report.) Of course, an opposition group was there, composed of haredim with signs accusing us of antiSemitism and worse; we were amused to see that almost every sign was misspelled.
Here is what I said at the press conference:
People who want to keep yeshivas immune to government oversight often claim to be upholding their right to the free exercise of religion, as guaranteed in our Constitution. This is completely wrong. Insisting on the right of every child to an adequate secular education is the essence of free exercise.
People have been coming to America in search of religious freedom since before we were a country. Jews showed up in New Amsterdam in 1654, and despite the objections of Peter Stuyvesant, they remained and flourished. As George Washington wrote to the Jews of Newport in 1790, “the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Between 1880 and 1914, about two million Jews came from Eastern Europe, fleeing pogroms. After World War II, the remnants of Hassidic communities found shelter here.
In America, Jews found freedom of religion beyond their wildest dreams, beyond anything available in Europe then or now. Americans enjoy the freedom to express our religious beliefs in almost all the details of our lives. But here’s the deal: religious freedom for all. Including children.
The Bill of Rights is a compact between individuals and their government. The First Amendment guarantees “the free exercise of religion” not to families nor to groups, but to individual persons. Those persons include kids.
This does not mean, of course, that a five-year-old can decide whether to be Catholic, Jewish, Mormon, or Muslim. But it does mean that adults must preserve for children now, the right to religious freedom when those children become adults. The state must guarantee to a ten-year-old now, the right to choose later, when he becomes an adult, whether or not to remain in the Hasidic community. These Hasidic boys, however, are coerced to remain within their religious communities when they grow up, because they enter adulthood functionally illiterate, unable to pass the GED, and virtually unemployable outside their community.
Free exercise is a two-sided coin. In America, the freedom to choose and to practice one’s religion is based on individual human rights. As Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “all men…are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” But the other side of that coin is the necessity of extending those same rights to our children. Children may well choose to pursue life, liberty and happiness within their parents’ communities. But the state must guarantee to children sufficient education to make their own choices.