“In 1971, a U.S. Supreme Court case dealt with the question of whether a family’s religious liberty includes the education of its children. The answer was yes, and the ruling has been used ever since as a basis of parents’ rights to opt out of traditional public or private schools.
The parents of more than 1.5 million kids in the United States teach them at home, meaning homeschoolers make up more than 3 percent of the school population today. Another 5 million attend private school—10 percent.
In Yoder v. Wisconsin, three Amish students from different families in Wisconsin stopped attending school after eighth grade. The Amish families explained to authorities that further institutionalized schooling violated their religious beliefs. But the law said all children must attend public school until age 16. The state found the Amish families guilty of breaking that law and ordered them to pay fines.
Although reluctant to use the court system, the Yoders and the other two families felt they had no choice but to appeal.
The state of Wisconsin argued alternatives to public high school, such as vocational schools with an agricultural bent, should suffice to suit the Amish.
But Chief Justice Warren Burger questioned the necessity of in-school training.
“If the Amish could show … that their own training in agriculture brought their children of age 16 to the same point or higher point of achievement as compared to those who went to the vocational schools to learn about agriculture, would you be here then?” Burger asked John Calhoun, Wisconsin’s lawyer.
Calhoun conceded the Amish students satisfied state standards. But he said the legislature, not parents, should decide the education of children. Further, what to believe is personal, but how to act upon beliefs is within the state’s discretion, Calhoun argued.
The attorney for the families suggested the state was pursuing a reprehensible motive.
“There is strong evidence that the purpose of this prosecution was not to further the compelling interest of the state in education, rather a reprehensible objective under the facts of this case to force the Amish into school only for the purpose of qualifying for augmented state aid,” William Ball said. He argued Wisconsin showed no compelling state interest in forcing its notion of schooling on the Amish.
He also said the state failed to meet its evidentiary burden to justify taking away the families’ First Amendment right to freedom of religion. To abridge a freedom guaranteed under the Bill of Rights, the courts require the state to prove its interest overrides the citizen’s. Ball said Wisconsin did not even bother to make that case.
He argued education of children is all-inclusive, not confined to what happens inside school walls.
Ball then answered the state’s best argument, that uneducated people are a drain on society: “The Amish definitely provide for their children of high school age what could be called an education. I would be inclined to say that they do a better job at this than most of the rest of us do. … They do not cast their burden on the community. They do not have people on relief or welfare. They do not have their aged using public funds for the aged. I think that we are talking about here are really great achievers.”
In rebuttal, Calhoun argued that retreat to a simpler era was the wrong way to go. He said more pride in intellect is necessary to cope with societal problems. Then he fell back on “that’s the way it’s always been” as his argument for compulsory schooling.
The court decided 7-0 that an individual’s free exercise of religion under the First Amendment outweighed the state’s interest in compelling school attendance beyond eighth grade. Two more years of high school was not a good enough reason to violate the faith of the Amish.
The same analysis has stood the test of time. The balancing test asks, first, is a First Amendment right being impinged? If yes, then is there a compelling state interest to violate that right? And, if so, is there a less restrictive way to accomplish the state’s goal?
Today, that analysis is critically relevant. Religious and conscientious objections to the redefinition of marriage, the rights of the unborn and the nurses and doctors who care for them, and the ability to live out one’s faith are on the front lines as much as ever.
Source: Amish education case set religious liberty legal standards
by Mary Reichard
Posted 8/03/15, 02:13 pm