State Sen. Simcha Felder, left, the main legislative opponent of...

State Sen. Simcha Felder, left, the main legislative opponent of forcing secular curricula on religious high schools. Credit: Newsday/Dave Sanders

We must always remember that people with unusually strong religious beliefs might be right.

They could be on target about who the deity running this show is, how it wants us to act, and what wrath rules kick in if we fail.

Or they could be wrong about God but more happy and productive via religious life than they’d be with secular success.

That is why our nation’s Constitution affords religious beliefs special protections from secular rules.

It’s the clash between those two interests that had members of the group Rabbinical Union for the Protection of Traditional Jewish Education lobbying in Albany this week. The group says it would go up to the United States Supreme Court to challenge secular oversight of religious high school curricula.

A 1894 state law passed as an attack on Catholics, and regulations to be updated soon, demand private schools provide education "substantially equivalent" to public schools, through 12th grade.

For almost all private, religious schools and about 95% of Jewish ones, the state standards are followed. But many ultra-orthodox Jews see it differently.

"The college preparatory path, giving children the skills they’ll need to be doctors or lawyers, that’s not what we want for our children," Rabbi Hershel Klein, who helped make the group’s case in Albany, said in an interview. "We do agree children need to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic. But that can be done by eighth grade. Calculus, physics, these are not required for the types of businesses and jobs we want our young people to work in, or their religious pursuits."

New York law disagrees. But in a 1972 Supreme Court decision, Yoder v Wisconsin, Amish families won their challenge to a state law demanding compulsory education to the 12th grade. The court agreed that school beyond eighth grade was not required.

The controversy in New York blossomed starting in 2015 when several former students sued four East Ramapo yeshivas in 2015, alleging they were not taught the subjects required by law, and necessary to become productive citizens.

It seems crucial that students have those skills.

But it also seems religious freedom is crucial, and that advanced secular studies can pull students away from a religious life, as Klein argues.

Some yeshivas do not teach secular subjects even to younger children, although the officials tasked with trying to quantify this in 2018 say it’s a tiny minority. Some community members say they’ve found themselves unable to make a living, like the group who sued.

But it’s the issue of what should be required that might get to the nation’s highest court. The arguments need to be heard.

Children do deserve education to prepare them for success if they pursue a secular, modern life. Parents do have some right to decide how their children develop, particularly when preferences are informed by religion. And society has a right to demand children be prepared for productive self-sufficiency.

In the Yoder decision, the court gave weight to the fact that Amish young people in the community consistently led stable, self-sufficient lives, having left school after eighth grade, without government aid. That’s a fair measure to apply.

People who want to pursue lives of deep religiosity should be able to do so. The extent to which they can purposely limit their children’s’ ability to escape such lives is debatable.

And the wild card will always be that they might be right.

Columnist Lane Filler’s opinions are his own.

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