U.S. Supreme Court Protects Home Schooling Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the 1960’s, Amish farmers in New Glarus, Wisconsin, refused to send their children to the public schools on the basis of the group’s religious convictions, an action that violated Wisconsin’s Compulsory Education Law. In 1972, the case was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, which affirmed the right of the Amish to educate their children in Amish homes and schools.

Summary of Event

The Amish are an Anabaptist Christian group with deeply held religious views and a conservative lifestyle; they follow a strict code of behavior known as the Ordnung (German for “order”), which is modified periodically as decided by the Amish bishops. Their teachings stress humility and simplicity, cooperation and community, ties to the land, service to society, and limits on modernization. Supreme Court, U.S.;home schooling Home schooling Education;home schooling Religious groups;Amish Religious freedom;education [kw]U.S. Supreme Court Protects Home Schooling (May 15, 1972) [kw]Supreme Court Protects Home Schooling, U.S. (May 15, 1972) [kw]Court Protects Home Schooling, U.S. Supreme (May 15, 1972) [kw]Home Schooling, U.S. Supreme Court Protects (May 15, 1972) [kw]Schooling, U.S. Supreme Court Protects Home (May 15, 1972) Supreme Court, U.S.;home schooling Home schooling Education;home schooling Religious groups;Amish Religious freedom;education [g]North America;May 15, 1972: U.S. Supreme Court Protects Home Schooling[00750] [g]United States;May 15, 1972: U.S. Supreme Court Protects Home Schooling[00750] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;May 15, 1972: U.S. Supreme Court Protects Home Schooling[00750] [c]Civil rights and liberties;May 15, 1972: U.S. Supreme Court Protects Home Schooling[00750] [c]Education;May 15, 1972: U.S. Supreme Court Protects Home Schooling[00750] Ball, William B. Hostetler, John A. Lindholm, William C. Yoder, Jonas Miller, Wallace Yutzy, Adin

Beyond a basic education, the Amish view the public schools as inconsistent with, even hostile to, their system of values and beliefs and thus a barrier to integrating their children into the Amish way of life. They see high school as a purveyor of temptation that also interferes with the use of adolescents as farm labor. The consolidation of many rural schools in the 1960’s meant the bussing of children to the city schools, a change of paramount concern to the Amish because they saw it as a threat to their rural lifestyle as well as to the cohesion of the group. The public schools exposed Amish children to notions of individuality, competition, status, and circumstances such as holiday celebrations that were in conflict with Amish religious views.

Jonas Yoder, a father in the Amish community at New Glarus, Wisconsin, did not want his daughter to take physical education in the public schools because participation would require non-Amish attire. The issue was taken to the state legislature, which made no exception, and subsequently the Amish decided to build and staff their own schools modeled after Amish schools elsewhere in the country. In the summer of 1968, three Amish fathers informed Superintendent Kenneth Glewen Glewen, Kenneth of the New Glarus District that they would not comply with Wisconsin’s Compulsory Education Law that mandates children ages seven to sixteen to attend school. Glewen asked the Amish to enroll their children in the district until the third Friday in September, so that the district would not lose state funding. The Amish community refused to participate in the deception and kept their children out of the public school, so that the district ultimately lost about twenty thousand dollars in state funds.

Hearing of the Amish dilemma, the Reverend William C. Lindholm, a Lutheran pastor from Michigan, engaged the support of the National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom (NCARF) and contacted a Pennsylvania attorney, William B. Ball, about representing the Amish in court. Critical of compulsory education, Ball accepted the case and based his arguments on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and religious freedoms. In April, 1969, the three Amish fathers, Jonas Yoder, Wallace Miller, and Adin Yutzy, were found in contempt of the law and each fined five dollars in Green County Court. Yoder and Miller were members of the Old Order Amish Church, and Yutzy was a member of the Conservative Amish Mennonite Church, groups bound by the same conservative doctrine. A former Amish and professor at Temple University, John A. Hostetler, provided the key testimony in the case as it proceeded through the courts: first in the Wisconsin District Court, where the decision was upheld against the Amish; then the Wisconsin Supreme Court, where the decision was reversed; and finally in the U.S. Supreme Court, which handed down a decision in favor of the Amish on May 15, 1972.

With a vote of six to one (William O. Douglas dissenting), the justices ruled that the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution Fourteenth Amendment (U.S. Constitution) First Amendment (U.S. Constitution) protected the rights of the Amish to maintain and staff their own schools and to limit their formal education to the eighth grade. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger Burger, Warren E. wrote, “The Amish objection to formal education beyond eighth grade is firmly grounded in central religious beliefs.” Attendance at non-Amish schools could result in censure by the church community because non-Amish values were a threat to the community and a danger to eternal salvation. In arguing the case, Ball repeatedly invoked two earlier Supreme Court cases: Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925) a decision that supported parental rights, and Sherbert v. Verner (1963), Sherbert v. Verner (1963) a decision that upheld religious liberty.

Although the Amish shunned the limelight, they were satisfied with the ruling; tensions over the issue eased, and the American public generally supported the Amish position. Even after the decision, some Amish parents around the country continued to send their children to public elementary schools, although Amish schools had become the norm by the late 1970’s.

Significance

Wisconsin v. Yoder was a historic decision that sparked discussion and debate and left a legacy of ambiguity and criticism. Scholarly observers criticized the justices for conferring special judicial protection to a single religious group. Some argue that the justices did not give proper consideration to the children and the importance of the state in providing and regulating education. For the Amish of New Glarus, the case brought unwanted notoriety, a serious circumstance in a culture that shuns attention, deplores vanity, and avoids confrontation of any kind. The Amish prefer to resolve their differences within the Amish world, avoiding the courts and litigation. They generally do not challenge higher authorities, nor do they serve in public office, preferring subjection over active forms of citizenship. Ironically, the Amish relinquished control of the case to non-Amish players who did not live the Amish lifestyle, such as Ball, Lindholm, and the coalition of lawyers, clergy, and scholars on the NCARF. Many believed that William Ball manipulated the Amish to serve his own moral and political interests, specifically his fight against secular humanism in the public schools.

Wisconsin v. Yoder illustrates how a small, local event can be easily catapulted to national significance—in this case, led by advocates outside of the litigant community. At the same time, it provides a poignant example of how the lives of litigants can be transformed by an experience in the national spotlight. The litigation sparked controversy within the Amish group at New Glarus and ultimately led to the disintegration of the community as people moved to other Amish settlements. Between 1973 and 1976, about two-thirds of the community relocated. Some farmers cited the lack of good, flat land for farming in the area; others pointed to a dispute with state authorities over barn sanitation regulations. Dissension arose between conservatives and progressives over the matter of farm machinery. The death of Dan Miller, caught in a tractor-propelled forklift, led some to believe that the Amish were being punished for inappropriate modernization. Tired of the criticism and notoriety that came to him, Jonas Yoder and his family left their New Glarus farm for a new life in Missouri. For Yoder and his community, it was not acceptable to live in the camera’s eye of interviews and photographs.

The Yoder case arrived before the Supreme Court at a time of significant turnover and adjustment among the justices, and legal scholars have analyzed the decision in this light. They point to lingering questions about the interpretation of religious liberty, the rights of parents versus children, home schooling, and the legal implications of this decision for other sectarian groups. Supreme Court, U.S.;home schooling Home schooling Education;home schooling Religious groups;Amish Religious freedom;education

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">De Walt, Mark W. Amish Education in the U.S. and Canada. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006. In-depth description of the history, philosophy, and classroom practices of the Amish, including cases by state and province.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harrison, Maureen, and Steve Gilbert, eds. Freedom of Religion Decisions of the United States Supreme Court. San Diego, Calif.: Excellent Books, 1996. Details on the Yoder court, a summary of the case, and the decision presented by Chief Justice Warren Burger.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peters, Shawn Francis. The Yoder Case: Religious Freedom, Education, and Parental Rights. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2003. Complete history of the case, criticism of the decision, and an analysis of its legacy.

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