Case

In 1972, the sixties liberalism was under fire. With President Nixon now in office, he appointed Warren Burger as Chief Justice to the Supreme Court. A case decided the year prior to Wisconsin v Yoder, Lemon v Kurtzman, established the Lemon test for religious establishment, which includes three parts: every law must have a secular legislative purpose; every law must have a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion; there must be no excessive entanglement of church and state.  Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, state law required that all children go to a public school or accredited private school at least until age 16. Yoder and two others who were members of the Old Order Amish religion and the Conservative Amish Mennonite Church, took their children out of traditional schooling after 8th grade. Yoder was charged with violating the compulsory education law and was fined $5. 

The Amish father sincerely saw education as a threat to the Amish way of life, thinking that it could endanger the salvation of their family. Therefore Yoder claimed that the state was in violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, which states that Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion. In 1925, the First Amendment was incorporated to also apply to the states. The Amish community in Wisconsin provided informal vocational education, but only to prepare their children for rural Amish life. Wisconsin argued that universal compulsory education was a strong state interest and necessary for both citizenship and job opportunity. How do you think the Court decided? Does a state law requiring children attend school until age 16 in violation of a parents’ constitutional right to raise their children whatever religion they choose? 

Decision

The Court decided in favor of Yoder. Chief Justice Burger’s majority opinion argued that the state interest of education is not sufficient to override violations of the Free Exercise Clause. Burger stated that any law inhibiting the free exercise of religion must go through strict scrutiny. While the Court found education a legitimate state interest, it did not find it more persuasive than the constitutional right to free exercise of religion. 

The Court found that the Amish respondents demonstrated that continued compulsory education could destroy their free exercise rights. Burger and the Court also placed value on the character of the Amish community. While the Amish are outside of the mainstream community, the majority characterized them as successful, law-abiding citizens, who reject forms of social welfare. These qualifications suggested to the Court that the respondents had adequate alternative education, which will not harm the health, opportunities, or citizenship of the child. Therefore the Court believed the Amish community deserved an exemption, and the State’s argument for citizenship and job security lacked validity. The Court found that while the universal compulsory education law may appear neutral on its face, it violates the free exercise of the Amish community. 

Dissent 

Justice Douglas dissents in part, arguing that the children should have been consulted since it is their liberties on the line and not that of their parents. Since the Court views children as persons, they have liberties established under the Bill of Rights. Douglas believed that if the parents were allowed this exemption, the religiosity of the parents would be placed onto the child. Therefore a child should be able to decide for themselves whether or not to continue their secular education, and the state should uphold the child’s desires even if they are in conflict with the parents’ beliefs. Since Yoder’s daughter testified that continuing education past 8th grade violated her religious views, Douglas joined the majority in terms of Yoder. Since the children of the other respondents did not testify as to their view of education, Douglas dissents on the decision to allow the other respondents’ children to stop attending schools. 

Douglas argued that a child who grows up in the Amish community without an education is likely unable to leave the community and lead a life with the same level of success as someone who stays in school through age 16. Douglas stated that they may want to be various professions outside of those traditionally offered by the Amish community.  The Justice went on to say that stopping their education at 8th grade barrs them from the “new and amazing world of diversity that we have today.” Justice Douglas also argued that the Court’s distinction around the good citizenship of the Amish people should have made no difference in deciding the case. Douglas thought that a religion is a religion regardless of what the criminal records of its observers may be. However, his opinion was outnumbered.

Impact

Wisconsin v Yoder marked the ending of the previous Warren Court’s hostilities towards religion. The case led to more concern surrounding minority religious rights, and protecting all religious communities from secular attack. The “Moral Majority” came to be a strong voice for protecting established religions and thrived during the Nixon Administration. The Court has continued to demand exemptions for laws that appear neutral but inhibit religious free exercise.  Nearly fifty years later in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v Colorado Civil Rights Commission (2018), the Court decided that Colorado law requiring a baker to make a cake that violated his religious beliefs surrounding same-sex marriage violated the Free Excercise Clause.

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    Think Further

    Think Further

    1. Do you think that since the Amish people were considered good citizens and not burdens to the welfare system they should get special exemptions to state schooling requirements? 
    2. What other laws are you aware of that have religious exemptions? 
    3. Do you believe you learned “worldly” education prior to 8th grade? If so, what do you make of the distinction of 8th grade?

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