Respondents, members of the different religions, challenged Wisconsin’s compulsory school-attendance law that required them to cause their children to attend public or private school until reaching age 16 on the ground that the law violates the First Amendment.
A way of life, however virtuous and admirable, may not be interposed as a barrier to a reasonable state regulation of education if it is based on purely secular considerations; to have the protection of the Religion Clauses, the claims must be rooted in religious belief.
Respondents Jonas Yoder and Wallace Miller are members of the Old Order Amish religion, and respondent Adin Yutzy is a member of the Conservative Amish Mennonite church. They and their families are residents of Wisconsin. Wisconsin’s compulsory school-attendance law required them to cause their children to attend public or private school until reaching age 16 but the respondents declined to send their children to public school after they completed the eighth grade. The children were not enrolled in any private school, or within any recognized exception to the compulsory-attendance law, and they are conceded to be subject to the Wisconsin statute. On complaint of the school district administrator for the public schools, respondents were convicted of violating the state law.
Does the Wisconsin’s compulsory school-attendance law that require parents to cause their children to attend public or private school until reaching age 16 violate the Constitution?
The First and Fourteenth Amendments prevent the State from compelling respondents to cause their children to attend formal high school to age 16. The impact of the compulsory-attendance law on respondents’ practice of the Amish religion is not only severe, but inescapable, for the Wisconsin law affirmatively compels them, under threat of criminal sanction, to perform acts undeniably at odds with fundamental tenets of their religious beliefs.
If the parents are allowed a religious exemption, the inevitable effect is to impose the parent’s notion of religious duty upon their children. Where the child is mature enough to express potentially conflicting desires, it would be an invasion of the child’s rights to permit such an imposition without canvassing his views. As child has no other effective forum, it is that his rights should be considered. If an Amish child desires to attend high school, and is mature enough to have that desire respected, the State may well be able to override the parents’ religiously motivated objections.
No one can question the State’s duty to protect children from ignorance. However, the record strongly shows that the Amish community has been a highly successful social unit within our society, even if apart from conventional mainstream. Its members are productive and very law-abiding members of society; they reject public welfare in any of its usual modern forms. There is nothing in the record to suggest that the Amish qualities of reliability, self-reliance, and dedication to work would fail to find ready markets in today’s society. Absent some contrary evidence supporting the State’s position, the Court is unwilling to assume that persons possessing such valuable vocational skills and habits are doomed to become burdens on society should they determine to leave the Amish faith, nor is there any basis in the record to warrant a finding that an additional one or two years of formal school education beyond the eighth grade would serve to eliminate any such problem that might exist.