Three Men’s Fight for “Amish Paradise”

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Religious Freedom: What’s All the Fuss About?


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by Ryan Snow
Weird Al Yankovic

“It’s hard work and sacrifice living in an Amish paradise.”

– Weird Al Yankovic


“It’s hard work and sacrifice living in an Amish paradise.” These words took on an especially poignant reality for three families who found themselves battling to raise their children in the Amish faith when their beliefs conflicted with the financial interests of the public school system. Their experience raises critical questions about the risks individuals face when government won’t provide reasonable exemptions from laws that conflict with religious beliefs and practices.

In the 1960s, compulsory education laws in various states seriously jeopardized religious freedom for the Amish, such that Amish would sell their farms and flee to places with more favorable laws. The fines imposed on Amish in Iowa for failing to comply with compulsory education requirements became so severe that the Governor intervened and suspended them.[i] Ironically, it was forced migration of religious minorities that originally provided the impetus for the First Amendment.[ii] 

According to Amish beliefs, public education past the eighth grade was deemed inappropriate because it subjected youth to the influence and values of a world many Amish considered to be evil. They did not object to elementary education because they believed all youth ought to be taught basic skills “in order to read the Bible, to be good farmers and citizens, and to be able to deal with non-Amish people when necessary in the course of daily affairs.”[iii]

In Wisconsin, consistent with their religious beliefs, a group of Amish farmers, including Jonas Yoder did not send their children to high school. In response, the local district administrator filed a truancy complaint which included the threat of criminal prosecution if they refused to cooperate. A factual description of the case describes that the administrator “spoke to the local newspapers about the danger of ‘dirty, barefoot Amish kids,’ and told both the press and legal authorities that the teenagers would become ‘delinquent’ dangers to the community unless public education intervened to prevent this growing menace to society.”

Amish Family © Michelle Lavoie. Used with Permission of Creative Commons Attribution License.

Prior to filing the criminal complaint, the administrator, Glewen, extended the Amish families a compromise that if they would just “keep their children in the public school until after the third Friday of September, Glewen would drop the case.”[iv] Glewen was interested in school funding money: the third Friday was when the annual school census was taken determining the amount of state aid schools received.  But the Amish saw through this and refused to be part of Glewen’s scheme to get more school aid.[v] 

After Glewen filed truancy charges against the families, they mounted a religious defense. Their attorney, William Ball, exposed the fact that the truancy complaint “appeared to be motivated by concerns about tax revenue, not about serving the best interests of the Mennonite children.”

Nevertheless, Jonas Yoder, Wallace Miller, and Adin Yutzy were convicted of violating Wisconsin’s compulsory school attendance law.[vi] They appealed. The issue on appeal was whether these men could be criminally convicted for failing to send their children to high school contrary to the dictates of their religion, when the First Amendment guarantees the free exercise of religion.

Eventually the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned the convictions. The Court explained “[t]he impact of the compulsory-attendance law on [the] practice of the Amish religion is not only severe, but inescapable, for the Wisconsin law affirmatively compels them, under threat of criminal sanction, to perform acts undeniably at odds with fundamental tenets of their religious beliefs.”[vii]  The Court concluded that the State of Wisconsin had not shown “how its admittedly strong interest in compulsory education would be adversely affected by granting an exception to the Amish.”[viii]

When the Federal Government enacted RFRA in 1993, it specifically referenced the legal reasoning in this case as an example of how Courts should uphold religious liberty in the United States. (To learn more about RFRA, read an earlier post in this series, Bipartisan Backlash: When Biden Argued for Religious Freedom.)

Wisconsin v. Yoder shows that even well-intentioned laws—such as compulsory education—can have far reaching effects that negatively impact religious freedom.

 

Summary: Wisconsin v. Yoder

BACKGROUND: Jonas Yoder refused to send his daughter to high school because the values taught fundamentally conflicted with their Amish faith.

ISSUE: Did the First Amendment prohibit criminally convicting Jonas Yoder for violating the compulsory education laws of Wisconsin?

OUTCOME: The US Supreme Court unanimously held that the Amish must be free to raise their children pursuant to their faith. The Court found that even though the compulsory education law did not appear to target Amish, it still prohibited the free exercise of religion guaranteed under the First Amendment.

IMPACT: The case became a landmark for evaluating religious exemption claims and establishing the right of parents to educate children in accordance with their beliefs. The case shows the social unrest that can occur when the government refuses to provide an exemption for people that genuinely believe State action threatens the salvation of their families.

Ryan Snow is a graduate of Brigham Young University - Idaho and SMU Dedman School of Law. He currently practices law in Texas and enjoys spending time with his family.


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[i] See State v. Yoder, 182 N.W.2d 539 (Wis. 1970) aff’d 406 U.S. 205 (1972). 

[ii] See Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 218 n. 9 (1972). 

[iii] Id. at 212. 

[iv] Kim D. Tschudy, New Glarus 87 (Arcadia Pub. Eds. 2014)

[v] Id. 

[vi] Yoder, 406 U.S. at 208. 

[vii] Id. at 218 (emphasis added). 

[viii] Id. at 236 (citation omitted).