U.S. Supreme Court Case: Is There Religious Freedom in America -- for the Amish?

By the Reverend William C. Lindholm

Facts of the Case
Death Knell for Amish?
Friends of the Court
Amish are not Ignorant
Exemption for the Amish


If the Old Order Amish must partake of the value system in a regular high school "their religion will be destroyed," said an anthropologist from Temple University at the trial of three Amish fathers in Wisconsin who refused to send their children to high school.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court last January in a landmark decision overturned the arrests of the Amish saying that "no liberty is more important ... than religious liberty," and the Amish "will not be required to attend school beyond the eighth grade" because the state had shown no "compelling state interest" that would justify the overriding of the freedom of religion guarantee of the Constitution of the United States.

Moreover, the court said that Amish "education produces as good a product as two additional years of compulsory high school."

Compulsory education laws in Wisconsin require attendance to age sixteen.

The State of Wisconsin claiming that religious liberty is no defense against compulsory education laws appealed to the United States Supreme Court, and this court heard oral arguments on Wednesday, December 8, 1971.

The U.S. Supreme Court will probably issue this term their ruling on whether the Amish can be forced into high school, which is against their religious beliefs and which will apparently result in the destruction of their church-community. The questions involved in the Amish case are significant ones. May the government require a religious group to perform an action that they believe will send them to hell? Specifically, is the government's policy required a certain type of secondary schooling so important that it can command that policy against the religious conscience of the Amish young people and their parents to produce the effect of destroying their church?

The Old Order Amish -- a minority religious group known for their shunning of modern conveniences and the driving of horses and buggies, who were among America's earliest settlers -- are supported in the high court by many of America's religious denominations.

Filing friend of the court briefs in support of the Amish were the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U. S. A. representing thirty-three Protestant and Orthodox denomination, 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 (although not filing legal briefs) also supported the Amish.

The three Amish fathers -- Jonas Yoder and Wallace Miller of rural New Glarus, and Adin Yutzy, now of Elsinore, Missouri -- were arrested for failure to sent their high school age youth to the two years of required high school attendance and instead gave them what the Amish always give their adolescent youth -- vocational training in the community. Wisconsin law requires attendance until age sixteen.

All three courts in Wisconsin were unanimous in their findings: "The Wisconsin compulsory education law does interfere with the freedom of the defendants to act in accordance with their sincere religious beliefs." Said the Wisconsin Supreme Court, "Any high school -- public or private -- represents a deterrent to Amish salvation." "To the Amish secondary schools not only teach an unacceptable value system," said the court, "but they seek to integrate ethnic groups into a homogenized society, resulting in psychological alienation from their parents and cause great harm to the child."

Defense attorneys for the Amish were William B. Ball, chief counsel and Joseph Skelly, both of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and Thomas Eckerle of Madison, Wisconsin. Assistant Attorney General John W. Calhoun handled the prosecution.

Since the Amish will not defend themselves, believing literally in the Bible -- "turn the other cheek," it says -- their defense was paid for by public donations through an interfaith group called the National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom (herman.bontrager@gmail.com).

Facts of the Case

The facts of the case before the U.S. Supreme Court are:

Upon these facts the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the state had failed its proofs. "There is not such a compelling state interest in two year high school compulsory education as will justify the burden it places upon appellant's free exercise of their religion."

Death Knell for Amish?

William B. Ball, defense lawyer for the Amish, said, "The State makes no bones about its desire to enter the minds of these young people, expose them to worldly education, fill up their minds with state packaged learning, alien to the Amish way, threatening the privacy of their psyche and threatening painful personality restructuring by pacing them in a high school with stress upon competition, ambition, consumerism, and speed."

The attorney said in his brief to the U. S. Supreme Court, "The state is insisting that there cannot be different kinds of education... all education must be dictated by the state with values derived from technology or related to consumption and competition and must be imposed upon every child".

"As all three courts in Wisconsin found, " said Ball, "the state is violating the free exercise of the Amish religion by interfering with the whole fabric of Amish worship life that permeates the whole of their ceremonial community and daily farm living, stopping parents from nurturing their children in the Amish faith, preventing the Amish youth from following their religious faith and farm vocations, and violating their right of communal association".

Ball said if the U.S. Supreme Court does not stop this invasion by the state "it will sound the death knell for an old, distinctive and innocent culture."

The Wisconsin attorney general, Robert W. Warren, in his brief to the U. S. Supreme Court said that the Amish are "neglecting" their children. Moreover, he asserts, the legislature alone controls educational policy and until that body changes the low the Amish "should be required to attend a 'more worldly' high school". (Pennsylvania, Indiana and Kansas have exempted Amish, but Wisconsin's legislature rejected consideration of the Amish problems.)

The Supreme Court will not have to decide whether the constitutional guarantees of religious freedom apply to the Amish, or whether they will have to move once more this time from the United States to find a haven where they can be left alone. One whole group left Arkansas a few years ago for Central America saying, "The government is gradually taking away our religious freedom".

Friends of the Court

The National Council of Churches urges the U. S. Supreme Court to affirm the decision favorable to the Amish and said, "responsible religious groups in this country have the right to undertake, not just an imitation of conventional education, but a fundamentally different type of education from the generally prevailing in a given state -- if necessary to embody and inculcate their understanding of what the divine will requires". The council further said, the Amish "were engaged in general education centuries before there was a State of Wisconsin and are as fully capable of choosing among arguable theories of pedagogy as are the civil entities that have entered the field of education more recently. The Amish have made a significant contribution to western civilization as a whole," stated the NCC, "and the entire Christian movement would be poorer if the Amish were forced to conform or emigrate".

In addition to the National Council of Churches, other religious groups supported the Amish.

The brief of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church said, "A child should not, except for the gravest causes, be forced to make the psychological decision of disobeying the religious precepts of his parent ... and the denial to a parent of the right to control the religious upbringing of his child is a denial of the free exercise of religion."

The Mennonite Central Committee through its attorney Donald Showalter of Harrisonburg, Virginia said in his friend of the court brief, "The education given Amish youth adequately prepares them for the future ... then clearly the legitimate state interest has been satisfied ... enforcement of the law beyond the rudiments will threaten the "very existence of the Amish religion in America." "Freedom of religion -- a constitutionally guaranteed right -- must prevail over the more nebulous and uncertain claim of the State of Wisconsin."

Nathan Lewis of Washington, D.C., counsel for the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs, said in his brief amicus curiae, "This case presents a disturbing illustration of an attempt by the state authorities to compel nonconformists, whose beliefs and practices are constitutionally protected, to adhere to norms that are entirely sound and desirable for most inhabitants of this country, but are offensive and harmful to the affected religious minority... the Constitution and the tradition of this nation do not permit this kind of coercion, which endangers all religious or ethnic minorities."

Attorney Leo Pfeffer of New York City representing the Synagogue Council of America and the American Jewish Congress said their organizations have "a strong interest in religious freedom and a religiously and culturally pluralistic America... a reversal of the decision of the Supreme Court of the State of Wisconsin may imperil these precious values". Wisconsin has failed to "establish a compelling state interest to outweigh the religious freedom, parental liberty, the rights of mature minors and family privacy," said the Jewish group, and moreover, "an education that includes eight grades is adequate to insure an informed citizenry."

Amish are not Ignorant

Some people who are uninformed are under the impression that the Amish are ignorant and that their children are denied an exposure to a knowledge of the world and will not be able to make their living. Such is contrary to fact. The Amish are not against education, but are dissenting from a culture that is increasingly materialistic and technical. They want an education that makes men good, compassionate, God-fearing, law-abiding, heaven-preparing, and which will enable a person to earn an honest living. Since their culture is transmitted in the oral tradition -- from faith to faith and father to son -- and consists of on-the-job training not within four walls, it is felt by some to be "no school". However, Dr. John A. Hostetler of Temple University did a three year study under the auspices of the U.S. Office of Education and testified as to his finding at the trial of the Amish fathers. Comparing Amish students with students in regular schools "the Amish", he said, "test above the norm on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and their I.Q. is above the norm." Dr. Donald A. Erickson, education professor at the University of Chicago, testified at their trial that the Amish are "educated" by their community. "They do a better job than most of us judging by the fact that there is no unemployment among them, very little divorce and very little juvenile delinquency." "They learn by doing", he said, "which is the best way". They are not an ignorant people, and these facts were in no way disputed by the State of Wisconsin. No one is contending that Amish education would fit the needs of all, but it is obviously adequate for them. Bear in mind that we are talking about only one or two years of required compulsory schooling that will not go far toward making them become scientists or engineers, but it does deprive them of a serious amount of liberty.

Chief Justice E. Harold Hallows of the Wisconsin Supreme Court stated in his eighteen page opinion favoring the Amish: "The Amish claim, with compelling merit, that their education produces as good a product as tow additional years of compulsory high school education does." The Court further stated: To force a worldly education on all Amish children, the majority of whom do not want it or need it, in order to confer a dubious benefit on the few who might later reject their religion, is not a compelling interest. Two more years of schooling do not help the Amish in his environment," the Court said.

Two former Amishmen are members of the National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom and who now hold doctorates in their fields; They strongly support the Amish in their struggle for religious freedom. These scholars say that Amish children are not seriously deprive of leaving the church if the weigh -- some do -- and those who leave have had not difficulty in finding a place in the larger society. Employers have been eager to hire the honest, self-reliant Amish craftsmen, and a number have easily passed college entrance tests. In the Wisconsin case the Amish young people testified that they did not want to go to high school, and that they wanted to follow the religion of their parents. These young people -- physically capable of being parents in their own right -- asked the court to grant their religious liberty to choose their faith. What many people do not realize is that they are really punishing the Amish children when they advocate that they be removed from their community for schooling, because they are being deprived of relationships that they want in their own community -- and this causes psychological harm.

Exemption for the Amish

Wisconsin is contending before the United States Supreme Court that the exemption of the Amish as required bye the WE Supreme Court will cause educational chaos, and other dangerous groups will rush through the open doors. Experience contradicts such an assertion. States that have granted the Amish legislative or administrative exemption report that in fifteen years there have not been other groups rushing in to seek an exemption. Also the states that do not required such high school attendance report that their rates of voluntary high school attendance is not different from Wisconsin's compulsory attendance.

It must be remembered also that the Wisconsin Supreme Court only excused the readily identifiable Amish church groups until they "pose a threat" to the state. There is no known similar group that has such unique religious requirements and constitutional claims.

The Amish still drive horses and buggies, shun modern conveniences such as electricity and telephone, wear plain clothing and observe the Bible literally, "Be ye not conformed to this world".

These "Plain People" are descendants of an impressive list of Christian martyrs. In the sixteenth century their women were buried alive and the men were put in sackcloths and drowned in rivers because they would not accept infant baptism and the union of church and state. They were saved from extinction by William Penn, who afforded them freedom in America.

The "crime" of the Amish people today is that they are dissenting from an education that is increasingly technical, secular and materialistic. The Amish want an education that makes men good, compassionate, law abiding, heaven-preparing and able to earn an honest living. They believe that "God has shown that the world's wisdom is foolishness with God." (I Cor. 1:20).

The larger society socializes young people in a culture that stresses competitiveness, emphasizing the materialistic, pecuniary, highly technical pursuits in a teenage atmosphere of fast cars, rock music and Hot Pants. While the Amish are taught by their elders a different set of attitudes and religious values -- like slowness of pace, peace, love of hard work, democratic cooperativeness, and close-to-the-soil living. Sitting at a desk learning intellectual disciplines blocks Amish religious training and takes them from the training in the skills and attitudes the special life in the shops and fields requires.

Back to home page