In the 1972 landmark United States Supreme Court case Wisconsin v. Yoder, a decision made by the Wisconsin Supreme Court was upheld when it was decided that the Amish should be exempt from compulsory education, based on their right to exercise their religious freedom. The principle opinions clearly rested on the religious rights of the parents. In neither of the majority opinions does there seem to be even the recognition of the children’s rights-in-trust and the state’s role of parens patriae — that of the state defending the children’s future interests against infringement by their parents.
Justice Hallows, who authored the majority opinion in the Wisconsin Supreme Court, wrote that he viewed this case solely as a parent’s right of religious freedom to bring up his children as he believes God dictates — that attending any high school would be a deterrent to an Amish child’s salvation.
What does it mean that any high school is a deterrent to an Amish child’s salvation? This alone should have given Justice Hallows cause for concern. This would suggest that Amish parents teach their children that a higher education is a deterrent to their salvation. This is true in a roundabout way. Amish children are taught that because they were born Amish they need to stay Amish to achieve salvation (or more precisely, they will go to Hell if they leave). And they are also taught that they need to obey the Amish ways without question.
Justice Heffernan of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, who dissented from the majority opinion, understood that this issue was more complex than what the majority opinion made it seem. He claimed that their reasoning was faulty “for it conceives the problem as one of religious liberty alone. It completely ignores the personal liberty of the Amish children to avail themselves of educational opportunities beyond eighth grade. In addition, the freedom of these young people to make a religious choice is completely ignored….”
I know what he means — I have lived it.
When this case was heard in the U.S. Supreme Court the majority opinion echoed that of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The decision to exempt the Amish from compulsory education laws created a double standard — one for Amish children and another for all other children in this country.
Those who formed the majority opinions in both Courts were concerned for the survival of the Amish community and religious practices if compulsory school attendance to age sixteen were enforced. There is something very disturbing about this. It would mean that the survival of the culture is dependent on denying their youth an adequate education, and that the authors of these opinions were willing to let that be so. They seemed to forget to ask the question of whether it is morally compelling to deny Amish children a higher education so that the culture can survive.
Justice Heffernan addressed how those Amish youth who leave the group have received no education that equips them for modern American life. He went on to propose a solution that would satisfy the needs of both the parents’ religious rights and the compulsory education laws — an Amish vocational school that will teach reading, agriculture, and whatever religious precepts the Amish community desires. In addition, “unpretentious” knowledge, such as English and mathematics should be taught that will be useful both for those who stay in the community, and also for those who fall away from the community to continue their education if they so desire.
What a practical and pragmatic solution! When I think of all the Amish children who have been deprived of an adequate education in the last thirty-eight years because of this Court decision, it makes my heart sink.
There is one more aspect of this case I must mention. Justice Heffernan pointed out that in other legal situations involving children affected by the conduct of their parents, a guardian ad litem is appointed to represent these children's interest, but this was not done in this case. And yet the parents had their advocate — Dr. John Hostetler testified as an expert witness before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, advocating for the Amish to be allowed the exemption. There is something inherently wrong with this picture — the children who needed advocates didn’t have them, but the parents who could have spoken for themselves had someone speak on their behalf. But this is not all that is wrong with this picture. Dr. John Hostetler grew up Amish, but left to pursue his education and subsequently acquired his PhD. Had I ever gotten the chance to meet Mr. Hostetler, I would have asked him how he reconciled his testimony in court with the choices he made in his own life. Did he really want to consign other Amish children to the life he chose to leave? How could he justify that?
I often wonder what would happen if this decision were to be reconsidered. If it were to come about, I hope some of those of us who have left would get a chance to advocate that this ruling be overturned. It is too late for any of us, but it is not too late for all the future generations of Amish children to have the right to an open future.