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Religion & Public Schools

Decision & Significance of Wisconsin V. Yoder (1972)


Court Decision

Arguments were heard on December 8th, 1971. On May 15th 1972 the Supreme Court ruled 6 to 1 that the compulsory education law in Wisconsin violated the Free Exercise Clause.

Justice Burger wrote in his majority opinion that Amish parents had legitimate reasons to want to remove their children from school before they reached high school. The qualities emphasized in higher education (self-distinction, competitiveness, scientific accomplishment, etc.) are contrary to Amish values and the government could not require parents to allow them to be instilled.

The Court first determined that the beliefs of the Amish were religiously based and of great antiquity. Next, the Court rejected the State's arguments that the Free Exercise Clause extends no protection because the case involved "action" or "conduct" rather than belief and because the regulation, neutral on its face, did not single out religion.

The Court went on to analyze whether a "compelling" governmental interest required such "grave interference" with Amish belief and practices. The governmental interest was not the general provision of education, inasmuch as the State and the Amish were in agreement on education through the first eight grades and since the Amish provided their children with additional education of a primarily vocational nature.

The impact of the compulsory-attendance law on respondents' 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. ... As the record shows, compulsory school attendance to age 16 for Amish children carries with it a very real threat of undermining the Amish community and religious practice as they exist today; they must either abandon belief and be assimilated into society at large, or be forced to migrate to some other and more tolerant region.

The State's interest was that of providing two additional years of public schooling. Nothing in the record, felt the Court, showed that this interest outweighed the great harm it would do to traditional Amish religious beliefs. Such attendance in high school hinders the Amish community by depriving them of the labor of their children and limiting their ability to instill appropriate values in their adolescents.

In his dissent, Justice Douglas argued that the children should have been heard on their desire to attend school and continue with the Amish religion - the decision only relied upon the interests of the state and parents, ignoring the primary party affected.

If the parents in this case are allowed a religious exemption, the inevitable effect is to impose the parents' notions of religious duty upon their children. Where the child is mature enough to express potentially conflicting desires, it would be an invasion of the child's rights to permit such an imposition without canvassing his views. ... As the child has no other effective forum, it is in this litigation that his rights should be considered. And, if an Amish child desires to attend high school, and is mature enough to have that desire respected, the State may well be able to override the parents' religiously motivated objections.

In addition, he questioned the wisdom in limiting exemptions to laws like compulsory eduction to formal religious communities. Other scholars have joined Douglas in arguing that people with more individualistic moral choices based upon secular grounds should not be granted less consideration.


The decision prohibited state governments from claiming any absolute right to institute compulsive high school education and intrude into the way in which families raise children.

By preventing parents from removing their children from school, the government had interfered with the families and stopped them from instilling their religious faith in their children in the only ways they knew how. Parents' rights to teach their religion and follow their religion were deemed more important than governmental interests in education all children.

Unfortunately, the potential interests and rights of the children were totally ignored. Do religious communities have the right to self-perpetuation if that infringes upon the freedom of choice of their members? This is an important issue in multicultural societies which include minority communities that reject modernity and the values of those around them.

It would set a bad precedent to tell the Amish that they can't raise their children the way they wish; at the same time, it would be a grievous error to assume that families can do anything they wish in the name of their religion. At some point, the interests of the children must take precedence and the problem with this decision is that the line between parental rights and children's rights is not adequately addressed.

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