The U.S. Supreme Court was asked yesterday to decide whether the responsibility of a state to ensure the adequate education of children should override the religious conviction of the Amish that eight years' schooling is enough.
The case, which pits the state of Wisconsin against three Amish fathers, poses one of the most critical religious freedom questions to come before the high court in some time.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in January that the three fathers, Jonas Yoder, Wallace Miller and Adin Yutzy, had a constitutionally guaranteed religious right to keep their children out of high school despite Wisconsin's compulsory education law.
One of Wisconsin's assistant attorneys general, John W. Calhoun, urged the federal high court to overturn the 6-to-1 ruling of his state's justices. Wisconsin's responsibility to defend its citizens' children from "the disease of ignorance" must take precedence of the Amish religious position, he said.
William B. Ball, a Harrisburg, Pa., lawyer who is one of the nation's principal legal experts on church-state matters, argued on behalf of the parents.
He laid before the clearly fascinated justices a picture of a tightly knit religious community in which wisdom is learned in the household and at the plow, and secondary schools are seen largely as purveyors of temptation and worldliness.
Wisconsin vs. Yoder, as the case is known, represents the first time that the conflicts between the technology-shunning Amish and the government have been argued before the nation's highest court.
But it stands at the end of a long line of efforts by governments on this continent and in Europe to compel the Amish to soften their sturdy resistance to the ways of the modern world.
Usually, the "plain people" have not combated these efforts, but simply packed up and moved somewhere else in a continuing search to find a place where they will be left alone.
Four bearded, overalled Amish elders, three from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and one from Mifflin County, Pennsylvania, sat quietly in the courtroom yesterday listening to the arguments.
There are in the United States about 20,000 adherents of the most conservative Amish tradition, the Old Order Amish Church, according to the 1971 Yearbook of American Churches. Many of them may emigrate to other countries if the Supreme Court rules against them, Dr. John A. Hostetler predicted after yesterday's hearing.
Hostetler, a former Amish member who left the fold and is now a professor at Temple University and the world's leading academic expert on Amish custom, has served as an expert witness for the defense since Wisconsin vs. Yoder began.
Yoder, Miller, and Yutzy, at that time all farmers in the rolling countryside outside New Glarus, Wis., were hauled into county court in October, 1968, on charges that they had failed to enroll their children, Frieda Yoder, 15, Barbara Miller, 15, and Vernon Yutzy, 14, in school.
Testimony in the case noted that the New Glarus school administrator signed the criminal complaint against the three fathers immediately after learning that the Amish in the public school district had opened a private, church-run, elementary school.
The three fathers were convicted in the county court and again in the circuit court, and fine $5 each. At that point they appealed to the state supreme courts, where for the first time in American legal history they won a decision that the Amish have a constitutional right to keep their children out of high school.
Earlier state supreme court decisions on similar case in Kansas, Ohio, and PA upheld the right of states to maintain compulsory education.
Funds to defend the New Glarus fathers were raised by the National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom, an organization created by a Livonia, Mich., Lutheran pastor, the Rev. William C. Lindholm. Contributions paved the way for the participation by Hostetler, University of Chicago education expert Donald A. Erickson, and attorney Ball from the inception of the case.
Lindholm said he formed the organization some years ago after seeing photographs of truant officers chasing terrified Amish children through a cornfield in his native Iowa.
"I decided it wasn't right," he said.
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