In the fall of 1968, authorities in New Glarus, Wisconsin, charged three Amish fathers—Wallace Miller, Jonas Yoder, and Adin Yutzy—with violating Wisconsin’s compulsory school attendance statute, which required all children to attend school until they reached the age of sixteen. The district attorney alleged that the three Amish farmers had broken the law because, in keeping with their faith’s traditions, they had stopped attending school once they turned fourteen.
The charges put the Amish in an awkward position. The defendants believed that they had done nothing wrong, but they were extraordinarily reluctant to resolve their disagreement with local authorities through litigation. The Amish have a long-standing aversion to ‘‘going to law,’’ because it violates their faith’s tradition of nonresistance. It was only after several months of indecision that Miller, Yoder, and Yutzy agreed to permit themselves to be represented by counsel in court.
William Ball, the attorney who defended the Amishmen, argued that application of the school attendance statute to the Amish violated their right to the free exercise of religion. To comply with the law, he claimed, the Amish would have to forsake their religious beliefs, which included a proscription against school attendance beyond the age of fourteen. Ball asserted that the First Amendment clearly protected the Amish from being forced to sacrifice their religious freedom. An argument focusing on parental rights formed the second prong of Ball’s defense strategy. He claimed that the state’s action was unconstitutional because it violated the right of the Amish defendants to direct the upbringing of their children. Ball insisted that two U.S. Supreme Court opinions supported the claims of the Amish in the Wisconsin school attendance case. The high court’s opinion in Sherbert v. Verner (1963) provided strong judicial safeguards for religious liberty, and its ruling in Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925) furnished stout protections for the rights of parents.
But not all judicial precedent favored Ball and his clients. Throughout the New Glarus case, the state of Wisconsin pointed out that Amish parents living in other states had made similar challenges to the constitutionality of school attendance laws, and they had lost each time. (In the most recent of these cases, resolved just two years before the Wisconsin case went to trial, the Kansas Supreme Court had ruled against an Amish father.) The state also referred to language in several U.S. Supreme Court opinions that explicitly acknowledged its right to enforce education regulations, including statutes mandating school attendance. Some of these passages appeared in the same opinions that Defense Attorney Ball cited to bolster his arguments in favor of the Amish.
Ball attempted to refute the state’s claims by mounting an exhaustive defense. He brought in expert witnesses from as far away as Philadelphia to testify on behalf of his clients. Their ranks included John Hostetler, the nation’s leading scholarly authority on the Amish, and an expert on public school regulation from the University of Chicago. Although the state’s case was far less impressive (Hostetler’s testimony alone lasted longer), a judge found the three Amish men guilty of a misdemeanor and ordered them to pay a token fine of five dollars. But Ball and the New Glarus Amish had better luck when they appealed Wisconsin v. Yoder to the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1971. With only one justice dissenting, it reversed the convictions of Miller, Yoder, and Yutzy.
To the consternation of the state legislature, which passed a resolution asking Attorney General Robert Warren to drop the case, the State of Wisconsin appealed this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. Although his critics suggested otherwise, Warren was not bent on punishing Miller, Yoder, and Yutzy. He simply feared that an accommodation of the Amish might open the floodgates to a torrent of similar claims from members of other religious or secular groups. If that happened, he worried, the state’s ability to regulate education—and thus ensure that all children received adequate schooling—might be swept away.
The U.S. Supreme Court handed down its ruling in Wisconsin v. Yoder on May 15, 1972. Citing the protections of religious liberty conferred by the First and Fourteenth Amendments, the justices affirmed the lower court’s ruling in favor of Miller, Yoder, and Yutzy. The application of the compulsory attendance law to the New Glarus Amish was unconstitutional, Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote in the Court’s majority opinion, in part because the record of the case amply demonstrated that its impact on their religious liberty was ‘‘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.’’
Many observers have lauded Chief Justice Burger’s opinion in Wisconsin v. Yoder as a signal moment for religious liberty. But some critics have insisted that the U.S. Supreme Court botched the case. A legion of scholarly observers has argued that the justices plainly flouted the First Amendment’s establishment clause by conferring special judicial protections on members of a single religious faith. (It should be noted that the Supreme Court itself has not agreed with this particular line of criticism. In subsequent opinions, it generally has held that legislative or judicial accommodations of religious practices are consistent with the establishment clause.) Others have concluded that the high court, by focusing its attention on shielding the religious liberty of the Amish parents, neglected the interests of those most affected by the outcome of the case—Amish children. And some commentators have faulted the justices for failing to recognize the importance of the state’s long-standing interest in furnishing and regulating education. It is perhaps a testament to Yoder’s complexity that debates over its merits have continued long after the opinion lost much of its vitality as judicial precedent. After chipping away at it for several years, the Supreme Court essentially demolished Yoder’s religious liberty holding in its controversial opinion in Employment Division v. Smith (1990). Although the justices distinguished this ruling from Yoder (they noted that the Amish case involved parents’ rights as well as religious liberty), Smith nonetheless sharply restricted protections for religious practice.
SHAWN FRANCIS PETERS
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited