Erin teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in Political Science, Public Policy, and Public Administration and has a PhD in Political Science.
Freedom of Religion in the United States
Should parents have the right to decide whether or not to educate their children when it violates their religious beliefs? Does the government have a right to require you to attend school until you are at least 16 years old?
Wisconsin v. Yoder is a 1972 Supreme Court case that addresses these questions through the lens of the First Amendment to the Constitution, which protects our freedom of religion: the right of Americans to practice our beliefs without interference, and forbidding the government from enforcing any national religion. We call these the free exercise and establishment clauses. In this case, when we discuss the government, we are talking about elected officials who make laws on our behalf, as well as public school systems, which are a form of local governance that must carry out state education laws.
Background of the Case
In the state of Wisconsin, all students were required to attend school through their 16th birthday. The Yoder and Miller families, who were practicing Old Order Amish, and the Yutzy family, members of the Conservative Amish Mennonite Church, refused to send their children to school after eighth grade. The families were charged with, tried, and convicted of violating Wisconsin's compulsory school attendance law, and fined.
During the trial, the families explained their reasoning for refusing to send their children to any high school, public or private. The parents objected to the outside influences their children would face in school, which may cause them to doubt their families' religious beliefs and possibly affect the salvation of their souls. For example, schooling focuses on ''intellectual and scientific accomplishments, self-distinction, competitiveness, worldly success, and social life with other students'' (406 U.S. 211), which are directly opposed to the Yoder, Miller, and Yutzy families' beliefs in communal life and desire to remain separate from modern culture, as part of their faith.
Furthermore, the families were concerned that their religious communities may punish them for sending their children to school. These faith communities believe strongly that they must remain separate from the rest of the world, such as through avoiding modern technology and conveniences; they also believe their children have a responsibility at home to care for younger siblings and learn to work for the family farm or business. It was the families' argument that all of the formal education needed to participate in their communities as adults was completed by eighth grade - particularly, ''basic reading, writing, and elementary mathematics'' (406 U.S. 211).
The Yoder, Miller, and Yutzy families appealed their conviction for violating the Wisconsin compulsory school attendance law on the grounds that the law was unconstitutional because it did not allow them to observe their beliefs under the First Amendment's free exercise clause.
The state of Wisconsin made the case that it has a compelling interest, or reasonable need, to enforce school attendance to age 16. The state claimed that there were important educational values imparted by the additional years of schooling from the eighth grade until age 16, which all children needed.
Thus, the Supreme Court had the following constitutional question to consider: Does it violate the First Amendment's free exercise clause to compel formal education through age 16, even if that contradicts the family's religious beliefs?
Decision of the Supreme Court
This case was decided in a 7 - 0 vote, with Justices Rehnquist and Powell not participating in the decision. The Supreme Court opinion, written by Chief Justice Burger, determined that the Wisconsin compulsory school attendance law does violate the free exercise clause. Forcing these particular families to educate their children against their religious beliefs would effectively force them to expose their children to beliefs and behaviors that contradict their closely held way of life.
In particular, Chief Justice Burger makes four important points to explain the Court's decision (406 U.S. 205-206):
- States have an obligation to engage in a ''balancing process'' (406 U.S. 205), where they weigh the burden imposed by public policies against the possible harm to our constitutional rights. If there is a significant burden our rights, than the law is not appropriate.
- The families have successfully proven that formal education will harm their ability to practice their religion. They would be exposed to a modern lifestyle which contradicts their beliefs.
- Amish have shown that their beliefs are genuine and intimately connected to their way of life, particularly their desire to separate from modern society. Their children would not learn the adult skills of homemaking and farming which are valued; they would all possibly be shunned by their community.
- Wisconsin did not successfully prove that it can, when acting in a child's best interest, go against the wishes of parents to practice their religious beliefs. In this case, the imposition on families is more significant than would be appropriate in order to further the state's compelling interest in education.
Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972) is a Supreme Court case that asked whether parents have the right to refuse to educate their children on the grounds that it would violate their ability to freely exercise, or practice, their religious beliefs. As Amish community members, the families did not want their children to attend school after eighth grade, fearing the secular influences of public high school. The Supreme Court ruled that it was the families' right to exercise their religious beliefs, without punishment from the state, by refusing to send their children to school. Chief Justice Burger's opinion hinged on four points: the ''balancing process'' that states must undergo when creating a law burdening the right to free exercise; the state's obligation to demonstrate a compelling interest in harming the right to free exercise; the families' successful demonstration that public education would harm their children's religious exercise; and the harm which they would face from their communities for educating their older children according to the state law.
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