Can Your Religion Get You Out of School? | Wisconsin v. Yoder

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In episode 44 of Supreme Court Briefs, Amish parents let their kids drop out of school after eighth grade. Wisconsin says they can't do that. The Amish fight back. #supremecourtbriefs #apgov #amish

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Green County, Wisconsin
September 1968

Three Amish students from three different families stop going to school at New Glarus High School. They were Frieda Yoder, age 15. Barbara Miller, also age 15, and Vernon Yutzy, age 14. But in Green County, not going to school if you were under the age of 16 was illegal. The school district tried to get them to go, but the parents said “no man, our kids are no longer going to school due to our religious beliefs.” Green County didn’t care if it was their religious beliefs or not. It fined the parents $5 for breaking the county’s compulsory-attendance law. Yeah. That will show them. Wait, just $5?

Anyway, the parents argued it was Amish tradition to not enroll their kids in public school after 8th grade. In general, there are two reasons for this. One is practicality- Amish teenagers generally need to begin learning a trade after 8th grade and public high schools usually don’t offer adequate training for them. The second reason? The Amish tend to see high schools and colleges as institutions that might promote ideas that go against their traditional Christian values and hurt their chances at going to heaven, yo. Jonas Yoder, the father of Frieda, represented the parents in court, but the Amish generally don’t like going to court to settle disputes. Therefore, a Lutheran minister named William Lindholm took an interest in their case and decided to help them fight, as he believed the county’s compulsory-attendance law went against the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

They appealed to the Wisconsin Circuit Court, who agreed with the lower court, so they appealed again to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, who agreed with Yoder and the rest, overturning the decision. The Wisconsin Supreme Court said that the state of Wisconsin couldn’t show that having an educational system for all its citizens was more important than the Amish families’ rights to practice their religion freely. Wisconsin was like, “oh yeah? Fine. We’re appealing to the Supreme Court of the United States, so what up now?”

I’ll tell you what up now. They kept on fighting, and the Court agreed to take on the case, hearing oral arguments on December 8, 1971.

The two things at odds with each other were religious freedom versus compulsory education. Yoder argued that high school threatened his Amish way of life. Wisconsin argued that some Amish kids may decide to leave the Amish faith after they reach adulthood, and so therefore a public school education through high school was necessary so they could more easily adapt to the “real world.” If the kids were 2 or 3 or 4 years older, then it wouldn’t be an issue, because they’d be considered adults who could choose whatever religion they wanted. So was Wisconsin violating the kids’ First Amendment rights by forcing them to go to school?

The Court said “yes.” On May 15, 1972, they announced they sided with Yoder. It was unanimous, although Justice William Douglas gave a partial dissent. But yeah, the Court said the 14th Amendment was applicable to the states in this case, and that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment DID protect the Amish parents’ right to take their kids out of school, even though they were under 16.

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