Family Law Keyed to Weisberg

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Wisconsin v. Yoder

Citation. Wisconsin v. Yoder, 1971 U.S. LEXIS 1879, 402 U.S. 994, 91 S. Ct. 2173, 29 L. Ed. 2d 160 (U.S. May 24, 1971)

Brief Fact Summary. Several Amish families appealed a decision convicting them of failing to send their children to school until the age of 16 based upon Freedom of Religion under the constitution.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. The law compelling parents to send their children to public school until the age of 16 is unconstitutional as applied because it impermissibly interferes with the Amish religious beliefs.

Facts. Respondents Jonas Yoder, Wallace Miller, and Adin Yutzy are members of the Amish religion. Wisconsin’s compulsory school-attendance law required them to cause their children to attend public or private school until they reach 16. Respondents declined to send their children to public school after completion of the eighth grade. Respondents were convicted of violating the law and fined $5 each.

Issue. Did the application of the compulsory attendance law violate respondent’s rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution?

Held. The application of the law is unconstitutional as applied to the Amish.
The Amish object to the high school education because the values taught there are in marked variance from the Amish values and way of life. It places Amish children in an environment hostile to their beliefs and takes them away from their community during a crucial period in their life. The Amish do not object to elementary education. Expert Dr. Hostetler testified that the compulsory attendance could result in not only great psychological harm to Amish children but ultimately the destruction of the Old Order Amish church community.

The State has the power to impose reasonable regulations for the control and duration of basic education. Previous precedent has held that this power must yield to the right of parents to provide an equivalent education in a privately operated system. The State’s power is subject to a balancing test when it impinges on fundamental rights such as those protected by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and the traditional interest of parents with respect to the religious upbringing of their children.

In order for Wisconsin to compel such attendance, it must follow that either the State does not deny the free exercise of religious belief by its requirement or that there is a state interest of sufficient magnitude to override the interest claiming protection under the Free Exercise Clause. This Court determines that the Amish objection to the attendance is rooted in religious beliefs that directly conflict with the compulsory school attendance law.

The State advances two arguments. First, it notes that some degree of education is necessary to prepare citizens to participate effectively and intelligently in our open political system. Second, education prepares individuals to be self-reliant and self-sufficient participants in society. We accept these propositions. However, the evidence adduced shows that an additional one or two years of formal high school would do little to serve those interests. Such education may be necessary for preparation for the modern society in which we live, but is not for the separated agrarian community of the Amish faith.

The State attacks respondents’ position as fostering ignorance from which children must be protected by the State. However, the record shows that the Amish community has been a highly successful social unit within our society, producing productive and law-abiding citizens. The State also supports its position on the possibility that some children will choose to leave the Amish community. This argument is highly speculative on the record, and the practical agricultural training and habits of industry would support children that did choose to leave.

The requirement for compulsory high school education is a fairly recent development, designed to not only provide educational opportunities, but also to avoid child labor or forced idleness. In these terms, Wisconsin’s interest in compelling school attendance is less substantial for Amish children than for children generally.

The State finally argues that exempting the Amish children fails to recognize the children’s substantive right to a secondary education, giving due regard to the power of the State as parens patriae. On this record there is no need to decide an issue in which the Amish parent’s are preventing children who wish to further their education from attending school.

Dissent. The majority assumes that the interests at stake are only those of the parents and the State. The children also have a legitimate interest in their education. The inevitable effect of the decision is to impose the parents’ notions of religious duty upon their children. It is the future of the student, not the parents, that is imperiled by today’s decision. The views of the two children in question were not canvassed, and should be on remand.

Discussion. The majority’s decision did not determine that the statute would violate Constitutional rights if the children wanted to pursue further education, but found that such a decision was unnecessary because no such claim was made on the record. The dissent suggested that the cause should be remanded to determine the desire of the children.