Supreme Court Lecture Recalls Amish School Case

By Mark Walsh — March 17, 2011 6 min read
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Nearly 40 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling that a state compulsory education law infringed on the religious rights of Amish parents who did not wish to send their children to school beyond the 8th grade.

The case was Wisconsin v. Yoder, decided on May 15, 1972. On Wednesday evening at the Supreme Court, a scholar who wrote a book about the case discussed the facts, the legacy, and some surprising outcomes of the legal battle between the state and the Old Order Amish community of New Glarus, Wis.

“They had no idea what they were getting themselves into,” the scholar, Shawn Francis Peters of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said about the three Amish fathers who were persuaded to challenge their misdemeanor criminal charges of violating the compulsory education law in the late 1960s.

Peters addressed about 100 people in the courtroom as part of a lecture series of the Supreme Court Historical Society. He was introduced by Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., as all such events in the courtroom require the presence of at least one justice.

Peters, a senior scholar at UW-Madison’s Center for Educational Opportunity, is the author of The Yoder Case: Religious Freedom, Education, and Parental Rights. The 2003 book is part of an excellent series called Landmark Law Cases and American Society by the Lawrence, Kan.-based University Press of Kansas.

He noted that the court’s decision in Yoder has been the subject of voluminous scholarly analysis, although its central holding that a religious sect may be excused from a generally applicable law has been weakened by such later cases as Employment Division v. Smith, the peyote case.

“As we approach the 40th anniversary of Yoder, it has lost some of its vitality as judicial precedent,” Peters said. “It just isn’t as weighty as it use to be. ... Still, the case is one that every law student learns about in con[stitutional] law class.”

Peters said he would focus his lecture on the case’s factual origins, particularly involving named respondent Jonas Yoder, who had moved to New Glarus from Ohio and was a hog farmer.

The Old Order Amish community had only developed around New Glarus in the mid-1960s, and some in the small town south of Madison were wary of the religious sect.

“These were the most Amish of the Amish, and because of that, not all people in the area welcomed them with open arms,” Peters said.

The school controversy started with Yoder objecting to the local public schools’ requirement that his daughters participate in gym class, which involved changing from their old-fashioned garb into gym uniforms, as well as a requirement that they shower in the school after gym. Yoder was uncomfortable with his daughters engaging in such immodest, worldly activities.

By August 1968, the Amish around New Glarus opened their own religious primary schools, going up the 8th grade. They had a deeply held belief that having their children attend high school grades, particularly in the public schools, would expose them to worldly influences and endanger their own religion, as well as their salvation.

When the local school superintendent realized that the Amish grade school children were no longer attending public schools, he clumsily asked their parents to return them at least until mid-September of that fall, when school census counts were completed. The school district faced the loss of some $20,000 in state aid because of the exodus of the Amish pupils, Peters’ book notes.

“It was a ruse that was completely unacceptable to the Amish,” Peters said in the lecture. Whether he was motivated by the sect’s refusal to go along with him or not, the superintendent pushed county officials to charge three of the fathers with violating the compulsory education law for keeping their high school-age children out of school.

Yoder and the other parents had to be persuaded to accept legal assistance from a group called the National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom. The group enlisted Pennsylvania attorney William Bentley Ball, who had argued religion cases before the Supreme Court and was active in efforts to bring about government aid for parochial schools.

Ball called expert witnesses and established a detailed record in the Wisconsin trial court about Amish religious beliefs. The parents lost in that court and were fined $5 each, but Ball was aiming to build a case for higher courts.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Amish in 1971, holding that the state violated the free exercise of religion rights of the parents. The state attorney general, fearful that the decision would prompt other challenges to school regulations, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Only seven members of the high court participated in the case in the 1971-72 term, with Justices Hugo Black and John Marshall Harlan having recently stepped down for health reasons. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger wrote the majority opinion for six of the justices.

“A state’s interest in universal education, however high we rank it, is not totally free from a balancing process when it impinges upon ... the traditional interest of parents with respect to the religious upbringing of their children,” Burger wrote. “The conclusion is inescapable that secondary schooling, by exposing Amish children to worldly influences in terms of attitudes, goals, and values contrary to beliefs, and by substantially interfering with the religious development of the Amish child and his integration into the way of life of the Amish faith community at the crucial adolescent stage of development, contravenes the basic religious tenets and practice of the Amish faith, both as to the parent and the child.”

Justice William O. Douglas dissented in part, saying the court failed to take into account the rights of the Amish children, and that their views about whether they wished to attend high school deserved consideration.

The Supreme Court decision ended a tide of discord between school authorities in several states and Amish communities. While Ball and other religious rights advocates hailed the decision, the reaction in the Amish community in New Glarus was more subdued, Peters said.

Jonas Yoder welcomed a reporter he knew into his home and listened to a radio news report about the decision over the reporter’s transistor radio. But Yoder quickly tired of other reporters seeking his reaction, and the attention he received did not sit well with many of his fellow Amish, Peters said.

“The attention clearly distressed Jonas Yoder,” Peters said. “He said, ‘For me, I wish it had been someone else.’”

The New Glarus Amish community dispersed in the years following the decision, for a multitude of reasons, Peters said. The Yoder case was one of them, as “progressive” members of the sect clashed with more conservative members over whether it had been right to engage in the court fight.

Within a few years, most of the estimated 200 members of the Amish community had moved away, including the Yoders. (For his book, Peters sought to track down Yoder in Missouri, but was informed by Amish community members that the author was probably the last person with whom Yoder would wish to speak.)

“It seems that a case designed to help preserve a community actually helped rip it apart,” Peters said. “In trying to escape worldliness, [the Amish] ran headlong into it.”

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The Supreme Court Historical Society’s Leon Silverman Lecture Series has three more lectures this spring devoted to “the people behind the Supreme Court’s religion cases.” One involves another education case: On May 10, the lecture will be about the 1963 case of Abington School District v. Schempp, one of the court’s school prayer cases. Noted law and religion scholar Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia will deliver that lecture.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.