OPINION: Parental educational rights and religious liberty: the Yoder case revisited

Published 6:59 am Sunday, November 14, 2021

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Throughout the country, parents are concerned that some public schoolboards, administrators, and associations hold them in disdain and fear their input when they raise legitimate questions about the direction of their local schools. Just short of 50 years ago (1972), the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision that protects parents in the educational choices they make for their children—Wisconsin v. Yoder. Revisiting Yoder nearly a half-century later is more than a historical exercise. Yoder reminds us that children are not “mere creatures of the state” and that parents retain the right to direct their education.

The facts that produced the Yoder case came to a head in 1969. They brought a lawyer by the name of William Bentley Ball down a country road near New Glarus, Wisconsin, where three Amish fathers of school-age children lived. Attorney Ball was an active Catholic layman who was offering legal help to this trio of Wisconsin fathers who had been summoned to appear before a county court on criminal charges. The offense? They held strong religious convictions about who should educate their children and for how long. Specifically, they refused to send their children to school beyond the eighth grade for two more years, which would have forced them to attend New Glarus public high school. This refusal put the threesome in violation of Wisconsin’s compulsory attendance law, which required those two years of high school after the eighth grade.

Arrayed against these generally law-abiding parents was the formidable educational apparatus of the state of Wisconsin. One of the defendants, an Old Order Amish adherent, Jonas Yoder, would have his name permanently attached to this case. Yoder’s daughter Frieda, who had been educated through the eighth grade, was soon to find her quiet rural life and the convictions of her father and other Amish believers spread out before the highest court in the land.

Yoder and the other two fathers were not against all education. However, they believed that an eighth-grade education was sufficient. Furthermore, they did not want their children exposed to the “worldliness” of the typical late 1960s high school. However, refusing to send their children to the public high school subjected them to prosecution under Wisconsin law, and, if found guilty, fined.

Attorney Ball had been alerted to this case by a friend, William Lindholm, a Lutheran pastor who was instrumental in forming “The National Committee for Amish Freedom.” Lindholm conceived of the committee after he had witnessed a series of earlier incidents in Iowa which had gained national attention. There, in November 1965, a local Iowa school district had sent buses and school personnel to “round up” Amish children and transport them, against their will, to public schools. A photo of Amish children fleeing into a cornfield to avoid the school truancy officers set off such a unfavorable national reaction that it eventually led Iowa lawmakers to grant exemptions to Amish children. But the same had not happened in Wisconsin.

Attorney Ball built a strong trial record in the Green County Court where the case began. He called and questioned the local sheriff and the director of the department of social services. Both were forced to admit that Amish children and families were law-abiding and had not added to the welfare burdens put on the county. Ball also called an expert on Amish life, Dr. John Hostetler, a Temple University professor, who testified that forcing Amish children into the secular public high school would undoubtedly mean that the values of the Amish religious community would not last long. When Hostetler was pursued on cross-examination by Wisconsin’s Deputy Attorney General, asking if it were not true that the purpose was to get an education which would allow the child to take “his or her place in the world,” Hostetler’s reply was stunning and direct. He said: “It depends on which world.”

Despite strong evidence that their religious liberty was being infringed, the Amish defendants lost in Green County. Ball appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, continuing to raise the issue of Wisconsin’s denial of religious liberty and parental choice. He and Yoder fared much better there. By a 6-1 vote, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin ruled in their favor. Chief Justice F. Harold Hallows saw Wisconsin’s overreach, writing: “There is no question … the compulsory education law infringes upon the free exercise of religion by appellants [Yoder and others] within the protection of the first amendment.”

Wisconsin was not content to end the dispute and took the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court. Following briefing and arguments, Chief Justice Burger wrote the opinion which gave Jonas Yoder and his fellow parents a victory. Burger, relying on the framework provided by an earlier case, Sherbert v. Verner, first examined the central tenets of the Amish faith to see if its adherents were “burdened” by being compelled to send their children to a secular public high school.

First, he said the Amish believe that their own salvation and that of their children “requires a life in a church community separate and apart from the world and worldly influence.”

Second, he pointed out that they seek sufficient education through eighth grade, one that will allow them “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.”

Thirdly, Burger explained that the Amish defendants eschewed the public high schools emphasis on “intellectual and scientific accomplishments, self-distinction, competitiveness, worldly success and social life with other students.” By contrast, wrote Burger, Amish society “emphasizes learning by doing, a life of ‘goodness’ rather than a life of intellect; wisdom rather than technical knowledge; community welfare, rather than competition; and separation from, rather than integration with, contemporary worldly society.” He concluded “that enforcement of the State’s requirement of compulsory formal education … would gravely endanger, if not destroy, the free exercise of respondents’ [Yoder and others] religious faith.”

However, under the legal requirements of the Sherbert case, the remaining question was whether this burden on the Amish religion would, nevertheless, yield to a legal interest of the state of Wisconsin. Those “interests” had to be “compelling” enough to override the free exercise of religion. The state’s reasons had to meet an extremely high standard which lawyers call “strict scrutiny,” because a fundamental right—religious liberty—was at stake.

Wisconsin first argued that further education was necessary for these Amish children to prepare them to be “self-reliant and self-sufficient participants in society.” The court rejected that argument as contrary to factual reality. The Amish did not intend to participate in that kind of modern society but instead in a “separated agrarian community that is the keystone of the Amish faith.”

Wisconsin’s final “fall back” argument showed the shallowness of the state’s position. Wisconsin warned that just an eighth-grade education would not be enough for these children in the event that they left the Amish religion and its separate agrarian society. This too was rejected by the court. After all, concluded the court, there was “nothing in the record to suggest that the Amish qualities of reliability, self-reliance, and dedication to work would fail to find ready markets in today’s society.”

Chief Justice Burger referred to the 1925 cases of Piece v. Society of Sisters and Meyer v. Nebraska, in which the court recognized the liberty right of parents under the 14th Amendment to choose the education of their own children when the parents’ choice of private schools was at odds with state public school mandates. Burger, quoting Justice McReynolds in Pierce, said: “‘The fundamental theory of liberty … excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.’”

Religious liberty and parental educational rights had won the day.

A final note: Is the Yoder decision a powerful and reliable precedent today? After all, the court departed from Sherbert compelling interest/strict scrutiny approach in its unfortunate 1990 decision in Employment Division v. Smith diminishing constitutional protections for some religious liberty claims. However, the court said Yoder was an example of a decision involving a “hybrid” of two rights, a religious liberty claim and liberty right to educate one’s children. Therefore, its case for constitutional protection was, and is, stronger than cases based on free exercise claims alone. Moreover, the Smith case seems to be on shaky ground with the current court and might well be repudiated or significantly modified. Regardless, Yoder is still good law, and its protections should be claimed with assurance by parents today.

Dr. John A. Sparks is the retired Dean of Arts & Letters, Grove City College and a Fellow in the Institute for Faith and Freedom.  He is a member of the state bar of Pennsylvania and a graduate of Grove City College and the University of Michigan Law School.  Sparks writes regularly for the Institute on Supreme Court developments.