Jonas Yoder, Wallace Miller, and Adin Yutzy were members of the Amish church. The Amish believe that salvation requires life in a church community separate and apart from the world and that members of the community must make their living by farming or closely related activities. Yoder, Miller, Yutzy, and their families were residents of Green County, Wisconsin. Wisconsin’s compulsory school attendance law required children to attend public or private school until reaching the age of 16. Frieda Yoder (age 15), Barbara Miller (age 15), and Vernon Yutzy (age 14) finished the eighth grade in public school but had not attended public or private school thereafter. The Amish objected to their children attending high school because the values taught there were very different from Amish values and the Amish way of life. The Amish also believe that high school education takes children away from their community during the crucial and formative adolescent period when the children should be acquiring Amish attitudes toward manual work and attaining specific skills needed to perform the adult role of an Amish farmer or housewife.
After the school district brought a complaint against them, Yoder, Miller, and Yutzy were charged with violating Wisconsin’s compulsory school attendance law. The Amish argued that the law violated their free exercise of religion as guaranteed by the First Amendment. Trial testimony showed the Amish believed that sending their children to high school would not only expose them to censure by the church community but also would endanger their salvation as well as that of their children. The trial court determined that the state’s law did interfere with the Amish freedom to act in accordance with their sincere religious beliefs but that the requirement of high school attendance until age 16 was a reasonable and constitutional exercise of governmental power. The parents were convicted and fined $5 each. They appealed to a Wisconsin Circuit Court, which affirmed the convictions. The Wisconsin Supreme Court, however, agreed with the parents’ First Amendment argument and reversed their convictions. The state then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Court considered the following question:
Does a state law requiring children to attend school until the age of 16 violate Amish rights under the free exercise of religion clause of the First Amendment?
By a 6-1 vote (Justices Lewis Powell and William Rehnquist not participating), the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion clause prevents a state from compelling Amish children to attend school to the age of 16. In his opinion for the Court, Chief Justice Warren Burger noted that according to an expert who testified at their trial in a state court, if the Amish children were required to attend public high schools, the conflict between the worldly values of a secular society and the non-worldly values of a religious society would do psychological harm to the Amish children. The experts further testified, Burger noted, that, torn between state law and demands of their religion, the children might leave their church which could mean the end of the Amish community. The Chief Justice also noted that a second expert testified that the Amish way of raising their children by “learning through doing” farm and vocational work was superior to the ordinary high school education. In addition, he pointed out that records showed that most Amish children became self-sufficient members of society with excellent records as law-abiding citizens. The Amish, he stated, instilled social and political responsibilities of citizenship in their children, and records disclosed that the Amish had never been known to commit crimes, to receive public assistance, or to be unemployed. Furthermore, the Chief Justice asserted, there was nothing in the record to show that the health, safety, or welfare of the Amish children was endangered by the actions of the parents. He concluded his opinion with the observation that “nothing we hold is intended to undermine the general applicability of the state’s compulsory school attendance statute.”
Justice William O. Douglas concurred in part and dissented in part. He agreed with the Court’s judgment relative to Frieda Yoder since she had testified as to her views. He dissented relative to Vernon Yutzy and Barbara Miller because they had not testified as to their views. Douglas wrote: “It is the future of the student, not the future of the parents, that is imperiled by today’s decision. If a parent keeps his child out of school beyond the grade school, then the child will be forever barred from entry into the new and amazing world of diversity that we have today. The child may decide that is the preferred course, or he may rebel. It is the student’s judgment, not his parents’, that is essential if we are to give full meaning to what we have said about the Bill of Rights and of the rights of students to be masters of their own destiny. If he is harnessed to the Amish way of life by those in authority over him and if his education is truncated, his entire life may be stunted and deformed. The child, therefore, should be given an opportunity to be heard before the State gives the exemption which we honor today.”