Wisconsin v. Yoder

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In Wisconsin v. Yoder et al. (406 U.S. 205)[1] the United States Supreme Court, by a ruling of 6-1[2] on May 15, 1972, upheld the judgment of the Wisconsin Supreme Court in voiding the convictions of the Amish plaintiffs (Yoder et al) under the state's compulsory school attendance law. The convictions of the plaintiffs were voided under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The case had come to the U.S. Court as a result of a Wisconsin compulsory school attendance law which required parents to enroll their children in public or private schools until at least the age of 16. The defendants, who were members of an Old Order Amish community, refused to send their 14 and 15 year old children to the consolidated public schools, or to otherwise provide education for them, in satisfaction of the statutes, after they had completed the eighth grade.

At lower court levels, the Amishmen were convicted of violating the statute and fined. They claimed that their rights under the free exercise of religion clause (First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution) were violated by the statute and appealed the conviction. Their appeal was heard by the state Supreme Court, where they were upheld. The State of Wisconsin then took the matter to the United States Supreme Court.

Chief Justice Warren Burger delivered the majority opinion of the court, joined by Associate Justices William J. Brennan, Potter Stewart, Byron White, Thurgood Marshall, and Harry Blackmun. Justice Stewart, joined by Brennan, wrote a concurring opinion, as did Justice White, joined by Brennan and Stewart. Justice William O. Douglas filed an opinion dissenting in part. Justices Lewis F. Powell and William Rehnquist took no part in the deliberations or decision of the case.

The Amish schools controversy

For more information, see: Amish schools controversy and History of education in the United States.

The background to the 1972 US Supreme Court decision in the Wisconsin v. Yoder case was a decades-long controversy surrounding educational reform as it affected the Amish religious community. The issues involved concerned the consolidation of rural school districts (the one-room schoolhouse) into larger districts, compulsory school attendance laws, and teacher certification, all of which were seen by the Amish as threats to their way of life.

The move towards schools consolidation

The one-room schoolhouse of rural America (affectionately known to many Americans as the "little red schoolhouse" though, in truth, it was more often white) continues to be a staple of American nostalgia. At one time in the early decades of the 20th century, one-fourth of all rural pupils in the United States attended one of nearly 188,000 such schools.[3]However, throughout the 20th century, and, in fact, beginning even before that, the one-room schoolhouse was largely phased out in favor of "consolidated" schools until at present, there are very few such schools remaining.

In the one-room school, a number of pupils (usually a few dozen at most) in grades 1 through 8 were all taught together by a single teacher. By consolidating several such one-room schools into one, larger school, a number of practical and educational benefits could be achieved, or so it was alleged by the proponents of consolidation.

These alleged benefits included the possibility of a more diversified curriculum, the ability of the teacher to devote more time to the pupils of each grade level, lower financial costs, and the extension of quality education to rural students.

But while many Americans lamented the loss of the one-room country schoolhouse with its nostalgic recollections of a simpler time, for one group, it meant more than that. The Amish, who have always taken a skeptical attitude towards progress and modernity generally, considered that the intrusion of the consolidated public schools and the extension of the minimum age for compulsory education which went with it, threatened their very existence as a religious community and a people.

Compromise and confrontation

The schools controversy erupted in several states, including Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, and Wisconsin - in short, wherever there were significant concentrations of Amish. Prior to this (and until about the mid 1950s), the Amish generally had sent their children to the public schools for elementary education - that is, up through the 8th grade, or age 14. But with the schools controversy and the push by educational reformers to consolidate rural districts, the Amish began to withdraw their children from the public schools and form their own Amish schools to provide basic elementary education.

In each case, the schools controversy took slightly different forms. In Pennsylvania, beginning as early as the late 1930s, the issue centered on consolidation, teacher certification, and the accompanying revision of the state mandated compulsory attendance laws which were extended to age 16.

In the Pennsylvania case, a compromise was reached in 1955 whereby the state would accept a form of home education and training, typically centered around the Amish home and farm, as satisfactory compliance under the state's vocational education provisions. All that was required of the Amish vocational schools was record-keeping on the part of the Amish and a few hours per week in attendance at an established school. Teachers (often the child's parents or family) were not required to be certified in accordance with the state's certification standards. This worked well and some other states copied the Pennsylvania plan.

In Iowa in the mid-1960s, the schools controversy erupted onto the national stage when public school officials in one district, accompanied by police, arrived at an Amish private school with the intention of transporting the Amish children into town to the consolidated school against the wishes of their parents. The press had got wind of the operation in advance and the nation was treated to pictures of tearful Amish fathers and mothers watching as some of their children were bussed off to town with other Amish children fleeing into a nearby corn field to avoid being seized. Throughout the crisis in Iowa, Amish parents were fined for violating the school attendance laws, and when they refused to pay the fines, which they felt would be an admission of guilt, were arrested and imprisoned. Farms, stock, and harvest were seized and put on the auction block.

Images of apparently peaceful, law-abiding American citizens having their lives disrupted and their children taken away in this fashion, reminiscent as they were, in the minds of many, of the kind of religious persecutions which the forebears of the Amish had experienced in Europe and which they had fled for the promised freedom and tolerance of America, sparked a nationwide outcry.

Eventually, Iowa governor Harold Hughes stepped in and ordered a cooling off period while a less explosive solution could be sought. In 1967, the Iowa state legislature passed an amendment to the state's educational standard's law permitting bona fide religious groups to file for an exemption to the state's standards, and the Iowa confrontation was defused.

Meanwhile, as a result of the Iowa events, Reverend William C. Lindholm, a Lutheran minister, formed with others the National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom. The Amish themselves do not believe in settling disputes by resorting to courts either to prosecute others or to defend themselves. It was this Committee which would lead the fight, financially, legally, and politically, which resulted in the US Supreme Court ruling in Wisconsin v. Yoder.

The Wisconsin case

Events in Green County, Wisconsin, which was the home to a recently established Amish community, served as the immediate backdrop to the Court's ruling. There Jonas Yoder, Wallace Miller, and Adin Yutzy (who, ironically, had moved to Wisconsin from Iowa a few years before to avoid the schools controversy which had erupted there) were tried for violating the compulsory school attendance law in Green County.

Rev. Lindholm's National Committee took up the cause and defended the men at lower court levels and, when they were convicted and fined, appealed the convictions to the Wisconsin Supreme Court where the convictions were set aside on constitutional grounds involving the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

The Court decision

Oral arguments were presented before the Supreme Court on December 8, 1971 and the decison on the case was issued on May 15, 1972.

In arguments presented before the court, William B. Ball, an attorney specializing in constitutional issues related to the separation of church and state, represented the respondents (Yoder, et al) as chief counsel. He had had been engaged for that purpose by the National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom.

Friends of the Court briefs were filed by a variety of religious bodies, including the National Council of Churches, the Seventh Day Adventist Church, the Mennonite Central Committee, the American Jewish Congress, the Synagogue Council of America and the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs. The U.S. Catholic Conference also supported the Amish, although they did not file a formal legal brief.

Among the expert witnesses called on behalf of the Amish respondents were John A. Hostetler, author of Amish Society and Donald Erickson, editor of the volume Public Controls for Non-Public Schools, who testified as a specialist on educational issues.

Legal grounds for the decision

In its final decision, the Court based itself on two main considerations. First, there was Sherbert v. Verner, a 1963 decison of the Court which promulgated a fourfold test for analysing claims of infringement under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. In addition, the Court also based its decision on concepts of parental rights.

These considerations were summed up succinctly in the Syllabus of the decision:

"The State's interest in universal education is not totally free from a balancing process when it impinges on other fundamental rights, such as those specifically protected by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and the traditional interest of parents with respect to the religious upbringing of their children."

The Amish position

The first two of the four criteria established by the Court in Sherbert v. Verner place a proof burden on those who advance a claim based on the Free Exercise clause. In the first instance, such claimants are required to show that their claim involves a sincerely held religious belief which, at the same time, is central to their religious faith. Then, in accordance with the second of the four part Sherbert test, the claimant, in order to be successful, must show that the governmental action which is at issue (in the present case, the enforcement of the Wisconsin mandatory school attendance statute against the Amish respondent's) would, in some fashion, significantly burden them on account of their religious beliefs or practices.

The Amish, through their legal representatives, argued that enforcement of the state's compulsory school attendance law, requiring formal school education beyond the 8th grade, would have serious harmful consequences to their religious community and, consequently, to their faith and that of their children. In this connection, It was asserted that their beliefs concerning higher education were fundamental to their religion and its values and therefore, that the state's efforts to enforce the compulsory attendance law against them was a violation of their rights, under the Constitution of the United States, to the free exercise of their religion and to the rights of Amish parents to direct the education and upbringing of their offspring.

Sincerity and centrality of religious belief (part 1 of the Sherbert test)

Amish objections to the public schools were centered on the values imparted by such education. Whereas the Amish way of life was based on the desiderata of separating themselves from the world and its values, beliefs which they held to be central to their views of the Biblical prescriptions for a Christian life, the schools sought to inculcate values emphasizing the material life and the preparation of their charges for life in a consumer oriented, industrial society

The Court affirmed that the claims of the Amish respondents did in fact involve sincerely held religious beliefs of their faith, thus satisfying that portion of the first part of the Sherbert test. To use the words of the Court (quoting from Justice Burger's opinion delivered on behalf of the Court):

"The trial testimony showed that respondents believed, in accordance with the tenets of Old Order Amish communitites generally, that their children's attendance at high school, public or private, was contrary to the Amish religion and way of life." (Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 at 209)

The Court's opinion further noted that the State "stipulated that respondent's religious beliefs were sincere."

It was further ascertained by the Court, based on the uncontradicted testimony of expert witnesses testifying on behalf of the Amish, that these beliefs were central to the Amish religion. Addressing this issue, Burger stated:

"As a result of their common heritage, Old Order Amish communities today are characterized by a fundamental belief that salvation requires life in a church community separate and apart from the world and worldly influence. This concept of life aloof from the world and its values is central to their faith." (id. at 210)
"Amish objection to formal education beyond the eighth grade is firmly grounded in these central religious concepts." (id. at 210)

Thus did the Court hold that the burden of satisfying the first part of the Sherbert test had been fully met by the Amish respondents.

Burdensome nature of governmental actions (part 2 of the Sherbert test)

In examining the Amish claims with reference to the second of the four parts of the Sherbert test, the Court was carefuly to distinguish between negative impacts on the Amish way of life, or "lifestyle" as it was then coming to be called, and effects on their religion. It was necessary for the Amish to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the Court not only that the enforcement of the State's statute against them would seriously and negatively impact their way of life, but that that way of life was so intimately bound up with their religion that it would necessarily have serious negative conseqences for that religion ss well. The reason for this is that the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment extends protection only to religions, not to lifestyles.

In the words of the Court:

" . . . we must be careful to determine whether the Amish religious faith and their mode of life are, as they claim, inseparable and interdependent. A way of life, however virtuous and admirable, may not be interposed as a barrier to reasonable state regulation of education if it is based on purely secular considerations: to have the protection of the Religiion Clauses, the claims must be rooted in religious belief." (id. at 215)

The Amish asserted, based on expert testimony, not contradicted by the State, that the Amish religion and way of life were in fact so integrally connected that interference with the Amish way of life would necessarily constitute interference with their religious practices. The Court summed up this testimony in the following words:

"Dr. John A. Hostetler testified that compulsory high school attendance could not only result in great psychological harm to Amish children, because of the conflicts it would produce, but would also, in his opinion, ultimately result in the destruction of the Old Order Amish church community as it exists in the United States today." (id. at 212)

The Court elaborated on this position, explaining why the compulsory school attendance statutes would have this effect on the Amish community:

"Formal high school education beyond the eighth grade is contrary to Amish beliefs, not only because it places Amish children in an environment hostile to Amish beliefs with increasing emphasis on competition in classwork and sports and with pressure to conform to the styles, manners, and ways of the peer group, but also because it takes them away from their community, physically and emotionally, during the crucial and formative adolescent period of life." (id. at 211)
"In short, high school attendance . . . interposes a serious barrier to the integration of the Amish child into the Amish religious community." (id. at 211)
"The conclusion is inescapable that secondary schooling, by exposing Amish children to worldly influences in terms of attitudes, goals, and values contrary to beliefs, and by substantially interfering with the religious development of the Amish child and his integration into the way of life of the Amish faith community at the crucial adolescent stage of development, contravenes the basic religious tenets and practice of the Amish faith, both as to the parent and the child." (id. at 218)

In summing up the Court's overall ruling in regards to the first two parts of the Sherbert test (the proof burden as applied to the Amish), it was stated:

". . . the Amish in this case have convincingly demonstrated the sincerity of their religious beliefs, the interrelationship of belief with their mode of life, . . . , and the hazards presented by the State's enforcement of a statute generally valid as to others." (id. at 235)

The State's case

The prosecution case was handled by Assistant Attorney General for the State of Wisconsin, John W. Calhoun. The State of Wisconsin did not contest the fact that the Amish were a bona fide religion or that the application of the state's compulsory attendance laws would possibly or likely have serious detrimental effects on the Amish religious community.

As Justice Burger stated in his opinion, delivered on behalf of the Court:

"In sum, the unchallenged testimony of acknowledged experts in education and religious history . . . support the claim that enforcement of the State's requirement of compulsory education after the eighth grade would gravely endanger if not destroy the free exercise of respondents' religious beliefs."

Instead, they claimed that religious liberty is no defense against compulsory education laws and that the state had overriding interests in the promotion of education among all its citizens.

Or, as Justice Burger put it, again on behalf of the Court:

"It's (i.e., the State's - ed) position is that the State's interest in universal, compulsory formal secondary education to age 16 is so great that it is paramount to the undisputed claims of respondents that their mode of preparing their youth for Amish life, after the traditional elementary education, is an essential part of their religious belief and practice . . ."

The State of Wisconsin also asserted on its behalf that the statutes in question were neutral in that they applied equally to all citizens and did not apply just to religious groupings or to any particulat religion. The Court, however, refused to dispose of the case on this ground, stating (in Burger's words):

"A regulation neutral on its face may, in its application, nonetheless offend the constitutional requirement for governmental neutrality if it unduly burdens the free exercise of religion."

Douglas' dissent

Justice Douglas, in filing a partial dissent, expressed his agreement with the Court's findings that "the religious scruples of the Amish are opposed to the education of their children beyond the eighth grade". This much was, in fact, not contested by any of the parties to the case, including the State. But Douglas then went on to state that he disagreed with "the Court's conclusion that the matter is within the dispensation of parents alone."

Douglas raised the issue of the rights of the involved children to have a say in the matter and it was on this issue that he dissented in the case of two of the three respondents, asserting that the children should have been canvassed as to their views. In his words:

"Crucial, however, are the views of the child whose parent is the subject of the suit. Frieda Yoder has in fact testified that her own religious views are opposed to high school education. I therefore join the judgement of the Court as to respondent Jonas Yoder. But Frieda Yoder's views may not be those of Vernon Yutzy or Barbara Miller. I must dissent, therefore, as to respondents Adin Yutzy and Wallace Miller, . . ."

Instead of concurring with the Court in these two latter cases, Douglas held that the matter as it related to them should be sent back to the lower court in order that the opinions of the two schoolchildren involved be sought and that the hearings should then be re-held upon remand of the case.

Legacy of Wisconsin v. Yoder

The consequences of any judicial ruling can be viewed from one of two major perspectives. On the one hand, there are the practical consequences of the ruling while, on the other hand, there are the ramifications in the sphere of legal theory.

Considered from the former, practical, point of view, the ruling in Wisconsin v. Yoder ended the Amish schools controversy in favor of the Amish by assuring their right to maintain their own schools and their way of life, thus enabling their survival as a distinct people and culture within modern American industrial society, at least in the short run.

The legal legacy of the ruling is far less decisive.

The Yoder case, in conjunction with the previous ruling in Sherbert v. Verner, represents the Court's most complete development of the position which holds that the Free Exercise Clause is to be implemented on the basis of constitutionally mandated exemptions. That is, in those instances where a general law, neutral on its face, is nevertheless such as to negatively impact a certain religion, or religion as a whole, then, in the absence of a "compelling state interest", it is necessary that an exemption be created to cover this situation.[4]

The main alternative theory is that which holds that formal neutrality is all that is required of legislation in order for it to pass a constitutional challenge, provided that it was not deliberately crafted so as to produce a certain effect (see Pierce v. Society of Sisters, as well as Marshall, "The Case Against the Constitutionally Compelled Free Exercise of Religion Exemption").

The danger of the "exemptions theory", of course, is that it could give rise to a flood of false or opportunistic claims of religious objection which are, in reality, based on nothing more that the secular consideration of wanting to avoid some obligation imposed by a law or, alternatively, desiring to perform some act proscribed by the law.[5]

As if in cognizance of this danger, the justices in Yoder set the claimant's proof bar high, especially noting that in the present case, they had established standards which "probably few other religious groups or sects" (Yoder 406 U.S. 205 at 236) could meet. On this grounds, some have attempted to treat this decision as though it were, de facto, at least, so exceptional as to be applicable only to the Amish.

In the years following this decision, the Court, to the chagrin of many, seemed to retreat from the positions adopted in Yoder, culminating in the ruling in Employment Division v. Smith wherein the Court appeared to all but void the Sherbert - Yoder test and re-establish the "action / belief" doctrine first put forth in Reynolds v. United States.

Still, in spite of the seeming retreat from the Sherbert - Yoder test, the ruling in Yoder was not voided in any sense for, in addition to the First Amendment claims, that decision also rested on the basis of parental rights established in, for example, Pierce v. Society of Sisters.


  1. Wisconsin v. Yoder Complete text of the court decision, including concurring opinions and Douglas' dissenting opinion.
  2. Various reputable web sites and sources give the vote as either 7-0, 6-1, or even, in one case, as 6-1/2 to 1/2. The differences depend on how they treat Douglas' dissent, which, for its part, depended on which of the three named respondents was referenced. In this article the vote tally as reported in the Oxford Guide to the Supreme Court (2nd edition, 2005) is used. This is not meant to imply that other sources are incorrect, however.
  3. Consolidated schools Time magazine article, January 14, 1924
  4. As the Court put it: "A regulation, neutral on its face may, in its application, nonetheless offend the constitutional requirement for government neutrality if it unduly burdens the free exercise of religion." (Yoder 406 U.S. 205 at 220, also citing Sherbert)
  5. The spectre of this occurring was raised in the Court's first examination of the Free Exercise Clause in Reynolds v. United States where the justices opined that it would create a situation where "each man was a law unto himself".