Wisconsin v. Yoder: State Law or Religious Freedom (05/15/1972)

Wisconsin v. Yoder

Did Wisconsin’s requirement that all parents send their children to school at least until age 16 violate the First Amendment by criminalizing the conduct of parents who refused to send their children to school due to religious beliefs?

Argued: 12/08/1971

Decision Date: 05/15/1972

Decision Record: 7-0; yes

Justices in Favor: Warren Burger, William Douglas, William Brennan, Potter Stewart, Byron White, Thurgood Marshall, Harry Blackmun

Justices Dissenting: None

Effect of the Decision

This case ruled that a person’s First Amendment religious rights are more important than a state requirement.

In Favor

In the favoring side of this case, on the side of the state of Wisconsin, attorney John W. Calhoun argued, “The respondents, here are members of the Old Order Amish religious sect.

They reside in Green County of Southwestern Wisconsin.

In November of 1968, when they refused to send their children beyond the eighth grade, a summon and criminal complaint was filed in the County Court of Green County.

They were tried on April 2, 1969 for violation of the Wisconsin compulsory school-attendance law.

The case was tried to the County Court of Green County and the respondents were found guilty there.

They had a trial de novo in the Circuit Court of Green County where the Court again found them guilty and imposed a minimum fine of $5.00 on each of the respondents.

They appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court reversed and this Court granted certiorari on May 24th of this year.

Respondents object to education of the children in public, private, secular or non-secular schools beyond a certain point.

At present time, the objection is eighth grade.

The Trial Court noted the problem with the arbitrary eighth grade cutoff in its decision.

Now, worried about the decisions and opinions that were filed in this case in the courts below, the Trial Court below found that the compulsory school attendance law did interfere with the freedom of the respondents to act in support of their religious beliefs.

They also found that appreciable numbers of the Amish-reared youth do believe the faith.

Both the Trial Courts concluded after several careful consideration of the cases that the compulsory school-attendance laws in Wisconsin were a reasonable exercise of the police power of the state to educate its youth.”


In the opposition, on the side of Yoder, attorney William B. Ball argued, “Wisconsin Attorney General’s attempt to have these Amish parents found criminally guilty has now entered into the fourth year.

This in spite of the fact that in January of this year, the Supreme Court of the State by a six to one vote tendered two conclusions and I am quoting out from the concurring opinion, “that there has been an inadequate showing that the state’s interest in establishing and maintaining an educational system overrides defendant’s right to free exercise of religion” and secondly, “that Amish should not be required to attend the school which meets the requirements of state law beyond the eighth grade.”

And even the one dissenting opinion that of Mr. Justice Heffernan talks about how this prosecution came to be triggered.

So there is strong evidence that the purpose of this prosecution was not to further the compelling interest of the state in education, rather a reprehensible objective under the facts of this case to force the Amish into school only for the purpose of qualifying for augmented state age.

I am going to tax the Court by going over just a little bit some of the facts as they have been presented because I think they are basic, from hearing the questions that have been asked.

The legal basis for this prosecution is the refusal of these parents on religious grounds to afford the three children in question at most two years of high school under a statute which requires not a high school course, not four years of high school, not even one year necessarily but merely school through age 15 not through age 16, through age 15 according to the statute.

Now, the state interest becomes a little bit varied when we think in terms of compelling state interest because if there is a VOs or the technical school, vocational school in the school district then the age limit is 18, up to 18 the child is to attend.

A different standard applies where there is no VO school and the record in this case establishes that there was no vocational school in this district.

Now, then in terms of the interest the state has been trying to compel these children to attend school beyond the eighth grade, we have to realize that for Frieda Yoder, the daughter of Jonas Yoder, one of the three children in question, only one year of schooling was involved because she was 15 years and five months old on the day the criminal complaint was brought against her father.

Barbara Miller would have only six months of the state benefit of additional compulsory education because she was 15 years and eight months old at the time the criminal complaint was brought.

Now, it is the position of the Amish parents that the application of the statute to them violates their free exercise of religion and that there has been no showing whatever, no showing at all that non-application of the statute to them violates or creates any substantial danger to any interest of the State of Wisconsin.

Nobody on our side challenges the fact that the compulsory attendance laws as we speak a compelling state interest.

We have merely, in fact emphasized in this case and in our defense, it is our whole sole support of the statement of this Court in Brown versus the Board of Education wherein the Court said education is a principle instrument in awakening the child’s cultural values and preparing them for later professional training and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment.

This is a superb description of what the Amish people believe in terms of education.

My argument, may it please the Court, will pursue two points.

One the pre-exercise claim and secondly the question of danger to interest of the state which the State of Wisconsin has said existence of substantially degree.

The free exercise point is extremely important that is it is extremely important, but I will try to develop this at some length because here we are not talking about one tenet of the religion being at stake, for example observance of the Sabbath or opposition to military training.

We are not talking here about one particular practice, say spreading the gospel through speech or press or simply as a period of a number of cases.

We are not talking about one forced exercise such as the salute to a greater image or recitation of papers or bible reading.

We are talking about a whole complex of religious interests, religious interests and rights in education and worship and parental nurture, an individual religious choice in vocation, in communal association with respect to teaching and learning with respect to privacy as we have tried to spell out in our brief and indeed we are talking about as will appear the continued existence of the Amish faith community in the United States.

In Graver versus Kansas, Kansas versus Graver rather, the only other State Supreme Court decision in point various Kansas’ attention was paid to the actualities of the Amish religious claim, and therefore, we are dwelling on that to some extent here this morning.”



The court decision was a unanimous one. Justice Warren Burger wrote the court opinion. He wrote, “Aided by a history of three centuries as an identifiable religious sect and a long history as a successful and self-sufficient segment of American society, the Amish in this case have convincingly demonstrated the sincerity of their religious beliefs, the interrelationship of belief with their mode of life, the vital role that belief and daily conduct play in the continued survival of Old Order Amish communities and their religious organization, and the hazards presented by the State’s enforcement of a statute generally valid as to others. Beyond this, they have carried the even more difficult burden of demonstrating the adequacy of their alternative mode of continuing informal vocational education in terms of precisely those overall interests that the State advances in support of its program of compulsory high school education. In light of this convincing showing, one that probably few other religious groups or sects could make, and weighing the minimal difference between what the State would require and what the Amish already accept, it was incumbent on the State to show with more particularity how its admittedly strong interest in compulsory education would be adversely affected by granting an exemption to the Amish. Sherbert v. Verner, supra.

Nothing we hold is intended to undermine the general applicability of the State’s compulsory school attendance statutes or to limit the power of the State to promulgate reasonable standards that, while not impairing the free exercise of religion, provide for continuing agricultural vocational education under parental and church guidance by the Old Order Amish or others similarly situated. The States have had a long history of amicable and effective relationships with church-sponsored schools, and there is no basis for assuming that, in this related context, reasonable standards cannot be established concerning the content of the continuing vocational education of Amish children under parental guidance, provided always that state regulations are not inconsistent with what we have said in this opinion.”

My Opinion:

In this case, I agree with the court decision. Our entire country is pretty much based around the First Amendment, which is where we get the famous name “free country.” America is known for its freedom of speech, expression, and especially religion. If not attending school until at least age 16 goes against ones religion, then that person should not attend school, even if it’s required by law, which in this case, it was. Forcing them to attend school would equate to forcing them to rebel against their religion against their will.

*Justice Leaning L=Left, LC=Left of Center, C=Center, RC=Right of Center, R=Right

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