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Wisconsin v. Yoder 1972

Petitioner: State of Wisconsin

Respondents: Jonas Yoder, Wallace Miller, Adin Yutzy

Petitioner's Claim: That requiring Amish parents to send their children to public school until sixteen years old did not violate the First Amendment freedom of religion.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioner: John W. Calhoun

Chief Lawyer for Respondents: William B. Ball

Justices for the Court: Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Warren E. Burger (writing for the Court), Thurgood Marshall, Potter Stewart, Byron R. White

Justices Dissenting: William O. Douglas (Lewis F. Powell Jr. and William H. Rehnquist did not participate)

Date of Decision: May 15, 1972

Decision: The Amish parents did not have to obey the Wisconsin law because it interfered with their religion.

Significance: The decision provided a test for balancing the state interest in education against the individual freedom of religion.


The Amish are Christians who first came to America in the mid-1700s. Their religion is based on an agricultural way of life. This means they worship God by farming in small communities of Amish people. On their farms and in their homes and daily lives, most Amish people refuse to use tractors, cars, electricity, and appliances, such as washing machines. Instead they use horses to plow their fields and gas lanterns to light their homes. To wash their clothes they use their hands. The Amish reject modern technology and conveniences in favor of living in harmony with nature and the land. This is an important part of their religion.

The Amish came to America seeking freedom of religion. Freedom of religion is the right to follow the religion of one's choice. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects this right. It says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The second part of this amendment, called the Free Exercise Clause, prevents the government from interfering with a person's right to choose his religious beliefs. Although the First Amendment only refers to the federal government, state governments must obey it under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Due Process Clause prevents states and local governments from violating certain rights related to life, freedom, and property.


School days

Most Amish children only go to school through the eighth grade. They spend the rest of their school days learning how to be part of the Amish community. For boys this usually means learning to be farmers or craftsmen. For girls it means learning to work around the farm and to take care of the home.

State governments, however, want to make sure that children go to school. Educated children can grow up to be working adults. Working adults help states remain strong by earning a living and by paying taxes to the state.

In the 1960s, the state of Wisconsin had a law that forced parents to send their children to public school until they reached sixteen years of age. Three Amish parents refused to obey the Wisconsin law. They kept their fourteen and fifteen-year-old children, who had completed the eighth grade, home from public school to learn how to live as Amish people.

Wisconsin filed criminal charges against the Amish parents, charging them with violating the school attendance law. At trial, the parents argued that the law violated the First Amendment freedom of religion. They said that in high school, their children would learn about worldly values such as money, science, and competition. They would be taught to go to college instead of staying in the Amish community. At the same time, they would not learn the skills they needed to live on a farm as Amish people.

The trial court rejected the parents' defense, found them guilty, and fined them five dollars each. It said that Wisconsin's interest in education was more important than the freedom of religion. The parents appealed to the Supreme Court of Wisconsin. It reversed the trial court's decision and ruled in favor of the Amish. It said that Wisconsin had failed to prove that its interest in education was more important than the freedom of religion. Wisconsin appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.


The land of the free

In a 6–1 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Amish. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger said that Wisconsin obviously had an interest in education, but that interest was not necessarily more important than the freedom of religion. To decide which was more important, Justice Burger used a three-part test.

First he decided if the Amish's religious beliefs were sincere. The answer to that question was "yes." Even Wisconsin agreed to this. For over three hundred years, the Amish had lived in agricultural communities where they worshiped God by living a simple, country lifestyle. They were not making it up to try to avoid school.

Second, Justice Burger decided whether the Wisconsin law interfered with the Amish religion. The answer to that question was also "yes." Attendance at high school would teach Amish children values that would not work in the Amish religious community. In fact, Justice Burger said that if Amish children were forced to go to high school, the Amish way of life might disappear. This would be the worst kind of interference with the freedom of religion.

The third part of the test was balancing Wisconsin's interest in education against the Amish's freedom of religion. Wisconsin argued that education was more important because without it, children would not grow up to be working adults. Justice Burger rejected this argument. Looking at the evidence in the case, he saw that Amish children attended school through the eighth grade, were trained on Amish farms, and grew up to be hard working adults in Amish communities. The one or two years of school they missed by not going until age sixteen did not hurt them or the State of Wisconsin. Therefore, the Court decided that the Amish's religious freedom was more important than Wisconsin's interest in requiring one to two years of additional education past the eighth grade.

AMISH EDUCATION

A lthough Amish children do not attend high school, their parents understand the importance of a basic education. Amish children complete grades one through eight, usually in a private school run by the Amish community. Many of these schools have twenty-five to thirty-five pupils in one room, with one teacher who teaches all eight grades.

The school day begins with a prayer and a Bible reading. Religion, however, is not formally taught. Instead, the students study subjects that most young school children study, such as reading, arithmetic, spelling, grammar, penmanship, history, and geography. Most Amish children also learn both English and German. They learn German because many Amish religious books are written in German.

There are some things missing from the one room Amish schoolhouse. Most Amish children do not study science or sex education. They also do not have official sports, dances, or clubs. They learn to cooperate instead of to compete with each other. Although Amish students are taught obedience and respect, playful pranks and giggles are common in the schoolhouse.


Shame on the Court?

Justice William O. Douglas wrote a dissenting opinion, which means he disagreed with the Court's decision. Justice Douglas thought the Court was wrong for two reasons. First, Justice Douglas said the Court did not ask whether the Amish children wanted to go to high school instead of join the Amish community. He emphasized that children have constitutional rights just like adults. If the children want to get a public education and then go to college, they should be allowed to do so. Justice Douglas did not think the Court's decision gave Amish children that choice.

Second, Justice Douglas said that the Free Exercise Clause protects religious beliefs, but not religious actions. If religious activity is harmful, the state can stop it. (For example, people are not allowed to engage in human sacrifices and say it's protected by the freedom of religion.) Justice Douglas said that refusing to send children to school until age sixteen is harmful to the children. He feared that the Court's decision would eventually allow people to do even more harmful things in the name of religious freedom.


Suggestions for further reading

Evans, J. Edward. Freedom of Religion. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, 1990.

Farish, Leah. The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech, Religion, and the Press. Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1998.

Gale Encyclopedia of Multicultural America, 1995 ed., entry on "Amish." Detroit: Gale Research, 1995.

Gay, Kathlyn. Church and State: Government and Religion in the United States. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1992.

Hirst, Mike. Freedom of Belief. New York: Franklin Watts, 1997.

Israel, Fred L. The Amish. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1996.

Klinker, Philip A. The First Amendment. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Silver Burdett Press, 1991.

Sherrow, Victoria. Freedom of Worship. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1997.

Wisconsin v. Yoder 1972

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