By John A. Sparks
Parents across the country fear that some public school boards, administrators and associations will look down on them and fear their contribution when they raise legitimate questions about the direction of their local schools. Just under 50 years ago (1972), the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling that protects parents in the educational choices they make for their children – Wisconsin vs. Yoder. Revisit Yoder almost half a century later, it is more than a historical exercise. Yoder recalls 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 the case came to a head in 1969. They brought a lawyer by the name of William Bentley Ball to a country road near New Glarus, Wisconsin, where three Amish fathers of school-aged children lived. Lawyer Ball was an active Catholic layman who provided legal aid to this trio of Wisconsin fathers who had been subpoenaed in county court on criminal charges. The offense? They had strong religious beliefs about who should educate their children and for how long. Specifically, they refused to send their children to school beyond eighth grade for two more years, which would have forced them to attend New Glarus Public High School. The refusal put the trio in violation of Wisconsin rules compulsory attendance law, which required those two years of high school after eighth grade.
Against these generally law-abiding parents was the formidable educational apparatus of the state of Wisconsin. One of the defendants, an adherent of the Old Order Amish, Jonas Yoder, is said to have his name permanently attached to the case. Yoder’s daughter Frieda, who had been in school until eighth grade, would soon return to her quiet rural life and the beliefs of her father and other Amish believers on display in the land’s highest court.
Yoder and the other two fathers were not against education. However, they believed that an eighth grade education was sufficient. In addition, they did not want their children exposed to the typical high school “worldliness” of the late 1960s. However, the refusal to send their children to public high school brought them to court. of Wisconsin law and, if found guilty, to a fine.
Lawyer Ball had been alerted to the case by a friend, William Lindholm, a Lutheran pastor who was instrumental in forming the “National Amish Freedom Committee”. Lindholm designed the committee after witnessing a series of previous incidents in Iowa that had gained national attention. There, in November 1965, a local school district in Iowa sent buses and school personnel to “round up” the Amish children and transport them, against their will, to public schools. A photo of Amish children fleeing into a cornfield to avoid truancy officers sparked such a backlash nationwide that it ultimately led to Iowa lawmakers granting exemptions to Amish children. But the same had not happened in Wisconsin.
Attorney Ball built a strong trial record in Green County Court, where the case began. He called and questioned the local sheriff and the director of the social services department. Both were forced to admit that Amish children and families obeyed the law and did not add to the payroll taxes imposed on the county. Ball also called out an expert on Amish life, Dr John Hostetler, a professor at Temple University, who said that forcing Amish children into public secular high school would undoubtedly mean that the values ââof the Amish religious community would not last long. When Hostetler was sued in cross-examination by the Deputy Attorney General of Wisconsin, asking him if it was not true that the goal was to obtain an education that would enable the child to take “his place in the world, âHostetler’s response was astounding and direct. He said, âIt depends on which world. “
Despite strong evidence that their religious freedom was being violated, 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 freedom and parental choice. He and Yoder fared much better there. By 6 votes to 1, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in their favor. Chief Justice F. Harold Hallows having regard to the overbreadth of Wisconsin, writing: “There is no doubt … that the compulsory education law infringes the free exercise of religion by the appellants [Yoder and others] under the protection of the First Amendment.
Wisconsin didn’t just end the dispute and took the case to the United States Supreme Court. After a briefing and arguments, Chief Justice Burger wrote the opinion that gave Jonas Yoder and his fellow parents a victory. Burger, building 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 “overburdened” by being forced 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 “necessitates a life in a church community separate and apart from the world and the influence of the world.”
Second, he stressed that they seek sufficient education up to eighth grade, one that will enable them “to read the Bible, to be good farmers and citizens, and to be able to deal with non-Amish people. if necessary during daily life. business.”
Third, Burger explained that the Amish defendants avoided public high schools from emphasizing “intellectual and scientific achievement, self-distinction, competitiveness, worldly achievement and social life with other students.” In contrast, writes Burger, Amish society âemphasizes learning by doing, a life of ‘kindness’ rather than a life of intellect; wisdom rather than technical knowledge; the welfare of the community rather than competition; and separation from, rather than integration with, contemporary mundane society. He concluded that “the application of the state’s requirement of compulsory formal education … would seriously endanger, if not destroy, the free exercise of those interviewed” [Yoder and others] religious faith. “
However, under the legal requirements of the Sherbert In this case, the question that remained was whether this burden on the Amish religion would nonetheless yield to a legal interest of the state of Wisconsin. These “interests” had to be “compelling” enough to override the free exercise of religion. The state’s motives had to meet an extremely high standard that lawyers call “scrutiny” because a fundamental right – religious freedom – was at stake.
Wisconsin initially argued that more education was needed for these Amish children to prepare them to be “autonomous and autonomous participants in society. “The court dismissed this argument as being contrary to the reality of the facts. The Amish did not intend to participate in this type of modern society, but rather in a” separate agrarian community which is the keystone of the Amish faith “.
The final argument of Wisconsin’s âwithdrawalâ showed the superficiality of the state’s position. Wisconsin warned that an eighth-grade education would not be sufficient for these children in the event they leave the Amish religion and its distinct agrarian society. This too was rejected by the court. After all, the court concluded, there was “nothing on the record to suggest that the Amish qualities of reliability, self-reliance and dedication to work would not find ready markets in today’s society.” .
Chief Justice Burger referred to the 1,925 cases of Piece v. Society of Sisters and Meyer v. Nebraska, in which the court recognized the parents’ right to liberty under the 14e Amendment to choose the education of their own children when parents’ choice of private schools conflicted with the mandates of state public schools. Burger, quoting Justice McReynolds in Pierce, said: “The fundamental theory of freedom[â¦]excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept the instruction of only public teachers. The child is not the simple creature of the State; those who nourish it and direct its destiny have the right, in addition to the duty, to recognize it and to prepare it for additional obligations.
Religious freedom and parental education rights had won the day.
One last remark: does the Yoder decision a powerful and reliable precedent today? After all, the court strayed from Sherbert compelling interest / rigorous review approach in its unfortunate 1990 decision in Division of employment c. Smith the reduction in constitutional protections for certain claims of religious freedom. However, the court said Yoder was an example of a decision involving a “hybrid” of two rights, a claim for religious freedom and the right to the freedom to educate one’s children. Therefore, its arguments for constitutional protection were and are even stronger than cases based solely on claims of free exercise. In addition, the Black-smith the case appears to be on shaky ground with the current court and may well be dismissed or significantly changed. Independently, Yoder is still a good law, and its protections should be confidently claimed by parents today.
Dr John A. Sparks is the retired Dean of Arts & Letters, Grove City College and a fellow of the Institute for Faith and Freedom. He is a member of the Pennsylvania State Bar and a graduate of Grove City College and the University of Michigan Law School.
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