The Amish might be the most quiescent religious group in America. They don’t proselytize, they don’t lobby or run for office, and most don’t even vote. Yet a little-known, almost 50-year-old Supreme Court decision involving them could be the next front in the battle for religious liberty.
In 1972, the Supreme Court handed down the decision Wisconsin v. Yoder, holding that the Amish community’s right to the free exercise of religion — specifically, eschewing formal education past eighth grade — trumped state laws mandating school attendance.
Enter Torah Bontrager. She left an Amish community in Iowa at age 15, later earned an Ivy League degree, and established the Amish Heritage Foundation to alter Amish communities. To her, this starts with overturning Yoder, the focus of a conference the foundation held last week at Bontrager’s alma mater, Columbia University. The foundation has planned a 30-state media tour but has not yet set its dates.
This movement is not limited to the Amish or even Christianity. Speakers at the conference decried a lack of preparation for the secular world in Islamic and Jewish schools, and the foundation has ties to the “ex-vangelical” movement. The biggest news from the conference was that the foundation has found three plaintiffs to sue to overturn Yoder. It didn’t give any names, but it described one as a minor who had left the Amish faith, began working in construction, and wanted to attend high school.
The State’s Interest and Power in Education
Education has traditionally been considered a state power, and the word “education” does not appear in the U.S. Constitution or any of its amendments. On what grounds, then, does the Amish Heritage Foundation claim “education [as] a federal right for all children”?
As a precedent, it cites a lawsuit filed against the state of Rhode Island by Michael Rebell, a Columbia professor, alleging that the rights to vote, speak freely, and serve on a jury imply that the government has a duty to provide adequate civic education and that by not having a civics education requirement, Rhode Island is violating students’ rights. By extension, according to the Amish Heritage Foundation, the rights of those raised in the Amish church to vote and speak freely imply that the government has a responsibility to make sure they attend high school.
The implications of imposing mainstream education requirements on the Amish would be profound. In most states, teachers are required to hold at least a bachelor’s degree, so the Amish would not be able to recruit teachers from their own ranks. They would have to rely on the local public schools or other denominations’ private schools.
Nor is civics the only aspect of secular education the Amish Heritage Foundation thinks Amish schoolchildren should be exposed to. One of the speakers at Columbia detailed horrific cases of sexual abuse within the Amish community, which the foundation linked to its cause, claiming secular sex education could prevent such abuse.
The Amish Heritage Foundation has some legitimate concerns, such as education conducted in languages (such as Yiddish or Pennsylvania German) that leaves students unprepared to deal with the English-speaking world, and a lack of instruction in subjects such as math or geography that no religion would find objectionable. The moral case for holding sexual abusers accountable should be obvious, especially to religious leaders, and by now, it should be obvious that trying to cover up such abuse, or attempting to deal with it internally, doesn’t work in the long run. The movement to overturn Wisconsin v. Yoder should remind leaders in religious education that if they don’t reform themselves, others will be only too happy to impose reforms on them.
Overturning Yoder Would Have Serious Consequences
Far from being an imposition of a right-wing, traditionalist court, Wisconsin v. Yoder came near the high tide of Supreme Court liberalism. Yoder was decided in May 1972. The court imposed a national moratorium on the death penalty in Furman v. Georgia the next month and handed down the Roe v. Wade decision less than a year later. The court may have seen itself as sticking up for minority rights against overweening local government then, but a more aggressively individualistic and secular left, concerned with rooting out religion, especially Christianity, might be more open to overturning it.
So how much danger is Wisconsin v. Yoder in? Although the Amish Heritage Foundation is obscure, with fewer than 200 Twitter followers and just over 1,000 likes and followers on Facebook, Bontrager has attracted press attention. If the case made it to the Supreme Court today, it’s likely the five conservative justices would uphold Yoder.
Among the court’s liberals, Justice Elena Kagan, who has shown a reluctance to overturn precedent, and Justice Stephen Breyer, who has been sympathetic to some religious liberty claims, might join them. In the longer term, however, if the activists can persuade public and legal opinion that Yoder is an unjustified privilege instead of a natural application of the First Amendment, a more left-wing court might someday overturn it.
Overturning Wisconsin v. Yoder would have ramifications far beyond Amish schoolhouses, opening the door to increased regulation and scrutiny of homeschooling and even government oversight of religious schools’ curricula. Overturning Yoder would make it harder for religious parents to control what ideas schools teach their children, as the explicit right to free exercise of religion becomes subordinate to a nebulous right to an “adequate education,” as defined by the government under activist influence.
Whatever you think of the Amish Heritage Foundation’s cause, it is absolutely right that the Yoder decision affects all Americans, not just the Amish.