Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205; 92 S. Ct. 1526; 32 L. Ed. 2d 15 (1972)
Facts—Suit was brought by Wisconsin against members of the Amish church to force them to abide by the state’s compulsory school attendance law, which required children to attend public or private school until the age of sixteen. The Amish parents refused to send their children to school beyond the eighth grade. Their objection to higher education generally is that the values it teaches are in marked variance with the Amish values and way of life. They agree that elementary education is necessary since their children must have the basic skills “in order to read the Bible, to be good farmers and citizens and to be able to deal with non-Amish people when necessary in the course of daily affairs.”
Question—Does the Wisconsin compulsory attendance law as applied to Amish families infringe on the free exercise clause of the First Amendment?
Reasons—C.J. Burger (6–1). However strong a state’s interest in universal compulsory education, it is by no means absolute to the exclusion or subordination of all other interests. The traditional way of life of the Amish is not merely a matter of personal preference but one of deep religious conviction, shared by an organized group, and intimately related to daily living. “A way of life that is odd or even erratic but interferes with no rights or interests of others is not to be condemned because it is different.” The First and Fourteenth Amendments prevent the state from enforcing this law in the case of the Amish.
J. Douglas, in a partial dissent, argued that the wishes of the children, as well as those of the parents, should be consulted before the Court rendered a decision in this case.
Note—The Court has long noted a distinction between religious beliefs and acts. Thus, Mormons were penalized for practicing polygamy, Reynolds v. United States 98 U.S. 145 (1897); Jehovah’s Witnesses for allowing their children in violation of child welfare law to distribute religious tracts at night, Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158 (1944); and Jewish merchants had to adhere to a Sunday closing law, Braunfeld v. Brown, 366 U.S. 599 (1961). Is the Court “establishing” a particular religion in Wisconsin in making an exception for the Amish? In United States v. Lee, 455 U.S. 252 (1982), the Court held that while an individual Amish is exempt from Social Security taxes, his employees are not. Although concurring, J. Stevens noted that the attempt to distinguish Lee from Yoder was “unconvincing.”