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Wisconsin v. Yoder


Wisconsin v. Yoder interpreted the Free Exercise Clause by constructing a three-part test intended to balance state educational interests against the interests of religious freedom. This balancing test marked the height of the move away from the belief-action doctrine established in the nineteenth century. The decision also impacted debates regarding parental control of their children's education.

The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment has posed a challenge to those courts faced with conflicts between religion and the government. The clause, which protects the free exercise of religion, fails to define religion, leaves its protective parameters unclear, and invites a wide range of interpretations. Interpreting free exercise becomes especially tricky--and especially important--in a culturally diverse nation such as the United States, when members of a religious minority seek exemption from state or federal laws because of their religious beliefs.

In Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Supreme Court grappled with a clash between Amish religious convictions and state educational requirements. Three families belonging to two Amish sects--the Old Amish religion and the Conservative Amish Mennonite Church--refused to send their children to public school past the eighth grade. Though state law required all children to attend school until age 16, the parents of Frieda Yoder, Barbara Miller, and Vernon Yutzy insisted that their religion prohibited them from allowing their children to attend high school. The Amish felt that exposing their children to the mainstream, "worldly" values taught there, such as competition and materialism, would undermine the religious teachings central to their alternative lifestyle and world view. They preferred instead to prepare their children at home for the agricultural and domestic pursuits that awaited them as adults in the Amish community. Therefore they sought exemption from state law under the Free Exercise Clause.

The Court used a three-part test to decide the case. First, it asked whether the religious beliefs in question were sincerely held. Secondly, it asked whether state law did in fact seriously burden those beliefs. After answering in the affirmative to the first two parts, the Court went on to consider the balance of the state's interests against the free exercise interests of the Amish. It determined that in order to rule for the state, state interests had to override religious interests, and that there must be no other way for state interests to be met other than to impinge upon religious freedom. Here the Court found that the state's interest in educating children to be responsible, productive citizens did not override the Amish parents' right to protect their community's religious beliefs by keeping their children out of high school.

The majority opinion emphasized the unique and pervasive nature of the Amish religion in rendering its decision. In an extensive inquiry into Amish religious beliefs and practices, the Court found that in an Amish community, religion, culture and daily life proved inseparable. Removing a child from his or her community for several hours a day thus would seriously undermine religious beliefs. The Court also discussed what it saw as the unbroken historical tradition of the Amish way of life, its isolation, and its rejection of modern conveniences and values. The majority opinion felt that the home-based education provided by the Amish beyond the eighth grade sufficiently prepared their children to function within and contribute to Amish society. The Court even went so far as to say that forcing these parents to send their children to high school threatened the very viability of the Amish religion and way of life.

The decision in Wisconsin v. Yoder brought together two areas of legal interpretation: parental control over education and the free exercise of religion. Between 1923 and 1927 a series of Supreme Court decisions--Meyer v. Nebraska, Pierce v. Society of Sisters, and Farrington v. Tokushige--established parents' constitutional right to exert control over their children's education, though strictly in a secular context. Yoder introduced a religious dimension to that debate.

Yoder also contributed to the Court's long-standing effort to interpret the Free Exercise Clause. In Reynolds v. United States (1879), the Court established the belief-action distinction, which held that though the First Amendment protected religious beliefs, citizens could still be held responsible for actions emanating from those beliefs that violated state or federal laws. In Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940), the Court moved away from strict belief-action doctrine to rule that government could not place an undue burden on religious practice as well as belief. The Court extended free exercise protection to indirect, unintended restrictions on religious practice in Sherbert v. Verner (1963).

In 1972, Wisconsin v. Yoder elaborated on the Sherbert decision, developing the three-part balancing test and issuing what Samuel Brooks called, in a 1990 article for the Valparaiso University Law Review, the Court's "clearest statement of the factors used in analyzing free exercise claims" to date. Together, Sherbert and Yoder seemed thoroughly to renounce the belief-action doctrine of previous rulings. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, the Court rendered several decisions--including United States v. Lee (1982) and Employment Division v. Smith (1990)--that reestablished the belief-action distinction and limited religious exemptions from federal and state laws.

The Supreme Court's decision in Wisconsin v. Yoder elicited mixed reactions. To some, it seemed greatly to extend both constitutional protection of religious freedom and parental control over education. To others, the way in which the Court focused its ruling on the specific facts of the case and emphasized what it saw as the unique nature of the Amish situation, limited its precedential value and actually restricted religious exemptions in future cases. This restrictive aspect has received criticism from several factions, including advocates of parents' rights to protect their children from religiously objectionable portions of school curricula, advocates of complete home education, and those who support private religious schools' freedom from state regulation.

The Yoder decision caused other negative reactions as well. Some critics have faulted the Court for failing to consider the children's interests as distinct from their parents and their right to a lifestyle choice beyond the Amish community. Others have expressed concern with the Court's narrow definition of what kind of religion qualified for the exemption granted in Yoder, a definition that included the existence of an organized group holding common religious convictions and a belief in the literal interpretation of the Bible. Some Native American legal advocates have criticized subsequent courts for misapplying the principles established by Yoder to Native American religions, thus denying Indian people protection of their sacred sites against government use and development. Whether seen as a positive or negative move, it remains clear that far from settling debates over the meaning of the Free Exercise Clause, Wisconsin v. Yoder only added to its multiple interpretations.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972Wisconsin v. Yoder - Significance, The Amish And Schooling, Further Readings