Wisconsin v. Yoder

Following is the case brief for Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972)

Case Summary of Wisconsin v. Yoder:

  • Members of the Amish religion, including Jonas Yoder, refused to send their children to school beyond the 8th grade for religious reasons.
  • Because Wisconsin law compels school attendance for all children until age 16, Yoder and the other respondents were tried and convicted for violating the law.
  • The Wisconsin Supreme Court reversed the convictions, finding that respondents were protected by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that decision, holding that Wisconsin’s law violated respondents’ constitutional right to the free exercise of religion under the First Amendment.

Wisconsin v. Yoder Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Jonas Yoder and Wallace Miller are members of the Old Order Amish religion, and Adin Yutzy is a member of the Conservative Amish Mennonite Church.  They were convicted of violating a Wisconsin law that mandated compulsory school attendance until a child reaches the age of 16.  Respondents had refused to send their children to school after the 8th grade.

During respondents’ trial on the matter, the evidence revealed that the Amish continue educating their children after the 8th grade in their own community.  Also, the Amish sincerely believe that attending high school would be detrimental to an Amish child’s religion and way of life.

Procedural History:

  • The trial court, though noting that the compulsory school attendance law interferes with religious freedom, held that the law was reasonable and necessary, thereby denying respondents’ motion to dismiss the charges.
  • The Wisconsin Circuit Court affirmed the convictions.
  • The Wisconsin Supreme Court, however, reversed, finding that the law improperly interfered with respondents’ right to free exercise of religion under the First Amendment.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Can the State prosecute parents for not sending their children to school up to age 16 when the parents refuse to send their children after the 8th grade for deeply held religious beliefs?  No.

Judgment:

The Wisconsin Supreme Court decision is affirmed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

A State’s interest in universal education must be balanced against the fundamental right of a parent’s religious upbringing of their children under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

Reasoning:

There is no question that a State government has an interest in educating all children in the State in order to ensure a literate, productive, educated society.  However, parents have a fundamental right under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to raise their children in a particular religion.  That fundamental right cannot be ignored in the name of universal education.  Rather, the competing interests must be balanced against one another.

In this case, the State’s prosecution of the respondent parents for not sending their children to school after the 8th grade improperly infringed on the respondents’ First Amendment rights.  The facts in this case dictate that the interest in protecting the respondents’ First Amendment rights outweighs the State’s interest in universal education past the 8th grade.

That is true because (i) the respondents’ choice only effected the last two years of the children’s public schooling, (ii) the Amish community had alternative schooling for the children after the 8th grade, and (iii) the expert evidence was persuasive that the respondents had a firmly held belief that the influences in public high school would severely harm the Amish children’s religion, faith, and way of life.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (Stewart):

In response to Justice Douglas’s opinion, the children’s religious beliefs or choice in schooling is not at issue in this case.  No facts in the record suggest that the children’s religious beliefs were at variance with the beliefs of their parents.

Concurring Opinion (White):

This would be a different case if the parents forbade their children from going to public school at all, or refused to comply with any of the State’s educational standards.  But having the children miss the last two years of public schooling is not so problematic that the respondents’ religious beliefs should be subordinate to the State’s interest.  That said, it is important to emphasize the significance of the State’s interest in educating their young people.  Education is vital to a healthy democratic society.

Dissenting Opinion (Douglas):

The children’s interest in this case has not been taken into account, only the religious beliefs of their Amish parents.  This case involves the State’s interest in education, the parents’ religious beliefs, and the children’s religious beliefs.  The case should be remanded to discover what the children want.

Significance:

Wisconsin v Yoder is important because it provides a counterbalance to the cases that impose certain infringements on religious freedom in the name of universal education or other significant governmental interests.  It makes the point that the State’s interest in compulsory education is strong but not absolute to the exclusion of all other interests.

Student Resources:

Full Text of Opinion

Hear the Oral Arguments

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