Amish and Religious Liberty

2011-10-18 03:12:05

The Amish seem to be an unlikely group to shape American law. These simple folk distance themselves from the trappings of modernity by living in largely isolated, rural communities. Moreover, they generally avoid relying on the courts to resolve disputes. (‘‘Going to law,’’ as it is called in the scriptures, is anathema to them.) Yet, remarkably, members of the faith have been at the center of several important legal cases that have helped to define the scope of judicial safeguards for religious liberty.

The Amish faith has its roots in the Reformation. Among the Protestant faiths to arise from that tumultuous period was Anabaptism, practiced by pious dissidents who made a particularly radical break with the Catholic hegemony that had long dominated political and religious life in Europe. Adhering to what might be best described as a primitive form of Christianity, they rejected infant baptism and disavowed state control of the church. In time, a group of Anabaptists who followed the teachings of Jakob Ammann splintered off and came to be known as the Amish. They followed Ammann’s directives on such matters as personal adornments. Clothes were to be fastened with hooks and not buttons; beards were to be untrimmed; and hats, dresses, stockings, and other garments were to be uniformly plain.

When the Amish started flocking to the New World in the eighteenth century, they steered clear of cities and settled in rural areas. Doing so allowed the Amish to distance themselves from the innumerable perils of what they called ‘‘worldliness.’’ For members of the faith, the call for separation from the corruption of the world at large came most clearly from Romans 12:1–2, which advises, ‘‘Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind that ye may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.’’ No single admonition from the scriptures was more central to the lives of the Amish who fled Europe for the New World, and it would remain a basic tenet of their faith for the remainder of the millennium.

Despite their best efforts, the Amish were unable to distance themselves completely from the tentacles of state power. Throughout the early and middle parts of the twentieth century, members of Amish communities in several states—including Iowa, Kansas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—clashed with state authorities who attempted to force them to comply with compulsory school attendance laws and related measures (such as curricula and the certification of teachers). The Amish resisted such laws in part because they seemed to threaten the faith’s tradition of not sending children to school beyond the age of fourteen. Several legal cases resulted from disputes over the application of school attendance laws to the Amish, among them Kansas v. Garber, 419 P. 2d 896 (Kan. 1966). In that case, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that such measures did not impose an unconstitutional burden on the religious liberty of the Amish.

A trio of Amish farmers from Wisconsin fared better than their Kansas brethren when they challenged the constitutionality of their state’s school attendance law. In its landmark religious liberty opinion in Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972), the U.S. Supreme Court held that compulsory attendance measures did in fact burden the right of the Amish to exercise their religion freely. According to Chief Justice Warren Burger, who wrote for the high court’s majority striking down the application of the law on the Amish, the impact of the statute on the Amish 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.’’

Yoder marked in many ways a high point not only for religious liberty jurisprudence in general but also for the Amish in particular. Never again would the courts provide such stout protections for free-exercise rights. This was demonstrated in the next significant Amish case to reach the U.S. Supreme Court. United States v. Lee, 455 U.S. 252 (1982), involved an Amish man who claimed that he deserved a faith-based exemption to paying Social Security taxes for his employees. According to Chief Justice Burger, who wrote for the Court’s majority, whereas the circumstances of Yoder had lent themselves to permitting a narrow accommodation for members of one particular religious group, the complexities of the tax system involved in Lee made providing faith-based exemptions a hopelessly complicated endeavor. ‘‘Because the broad public interest in maintaining a sound tax system is of such high order,’’ he wrote in the Court’s denial of the Amish man’s claim, ‘‘religious belief in conflict with the payment of taxes affords no basis for resisting the tax.’’

The Yoder precedent proved more useful when the Amish opposed the application of state laws mandating the display of bright red and orange reflective triangles on slow-moving vehicles (SMVs). In 1996, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in Wisconsin v. Miller (538 N.W. 2d 573, Wisc. 1995) that application of that state’s SMV measure to the Amish—who had argued that placing the SMV emblem on their buggies was too ‘‘worldly’’—violated their religious liberty. In determining that the state constitution’s protections of conscience shielded the Amish, the court relied in part on the interpretive framework established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Yoder and its forebears. Yoder had proved similarly important in earlier SMV emblem cases in Kentucky, Ohio, and Michigan.

Such cases are all the more noteworthy because the Amish are famously hesitant to ‘‘go to law.’’ This disinclination is rooted in large part in their adherence to the ethical principles detailed in the Sermon on the Mount. There, as he counsels meekness and nonresistance, Christ admonishes: ‘‘If any man sue you at law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.’’ To the Amish, being sued or prosecuted is not quite the same as suing, for defendants in legal cases typically have not chosen to invoke the law; in most instances, they have been dragged into the courts by other people. Not all members of the faith approve of these dealings with the courts, but some justify them on the grounds that the Amish typically are defendants in criminal actions rather than plaintiffs in civil matters.


References and Further Reading

  • Hostetler, John. Amish Society, 4th ed. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993
  • Kraybill, Donald. The Riddle of Amish Culture, rev. ed. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001
  • Peters, Shawn Francis. The Yoder Case: Religious Freedom, Education, and Parental Rights. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2003

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Kansas v. Garber, 419 P. 2d 896 (Kan. 1966) 
  • United States v. Lee 455 U.S. 252 (1982) 
  • Wisconsin v. Miller 538 N.W. 2d 573 (Wisc. 1995) 
  • Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972)