It all began in 1968, when three Amishmen – quiet farmers who lived near New Glarus, Wis. – were arrested and convicted for refusing to send their children to a public high school, as required by compulsory education laws.
Each was fined $5, but the matter did not rest there.
Before it was over, Jonas Yoder, Adin Yutzy and Wallace Miller would become part of one of the nation’s key court rulings on religious freedom. Notoriety, trips to court and headlines – all anathema to the modest, publicity-shunning Amish – would be in their future for at least another four years.
After exhausting their legal remedies in Wisconsin, the trio’s case ultimately went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in May 1972 ruled in their favor, allowing the Amish to establish their own schools and stop the education of their children at eighth grade.
Thirty years later, the Wisconsin v. Yoder decision still stands as a landmark not only for the Amish, but for advocates of religious freedom across the country.
William C. Lindholm, a Lutheran pastor who has spent nearly four decades speaking out for the religious rights of the Amish, said the Yoder decision has been a landmark in more than one way.
Lindholm, of Livonia, Mich., is founder of the National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom, a group that helps advise the Amish on various legal matters. Lindholm took notice of the plight of the Amish and their schools when his wife told him about a similar case that arose in Iowa in 1967.
“I knew that when the [Yoder] decision came down it would have a great impact,” Lindholm said. “Up to then, the Supreme Court had been so reluctant to recognize any religious freedom rights.”
In the Yoder case, Lindholm said, the Supreme Court “recognized a unique religion and allowed it to continue” by making it legal for Amish parents to decide how their children would be schooled, and for how long.
This issue of parental discretion, along with the close tie education has with the practice of the Amish religion, was central to the success of the case, and among the reasons it has stood the test of time.
Today, the committee helps the Amish negotiate other legal issues. Some of these cases involve the display of slow-moving vehicle triangles on Amish carriages – which the conservative Swartzendruber Amish object to as too worldly – along with other matters of land use, child labor and requirements for photo IDs.
“The mainstream takes these things for granted,” Lindholm said. But with tighter restrictions on many civil rights in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Lindholm believes the courts could grow less friendly toward groups like the Amish, and toward religious freedom cases in general.
“I think it’s going to be a rough road, a big struggle,” Lindholm said.
Herman Bontrager of New Holland, Pa., is another member of the committee. Like Lindholm, he is a longtime advocate for the Amish and the special needs of their culture.
Bontrager, who grew up in the Beachy Amish and is now president of Goodville Mutual Casualty Co., recently completed an essay on Amish legal issues for a new edition of The Amish and the State (Johns Hopkins University Press), edited by sociologist Donald Kraybill of Elizabethtown, Pa., a respected authority on the Amish.
In his essay, Bontrager summarizes Amish encounters with the legal system over the past decade, ranging from cases dealing not only with child labor and land use, but with alternative medicine, workplace safety, autopsy laws and rubber horseshoes.
Even Amish airspace – in the form of a dispute over Air National Guard jets flying over Amish countryside in Wisconsin, frightening the animals – has been an object of public debate.
If some of these matters seem a bit trivial, the Yoder decision, Bontrager said, is still a very significant case that will continue to occupy a major place in religious freedom law.
Overall, Bontrager said, the Amish continue to be innovative enough to deal with the various social challenges they face, even if the tenets of their lifestyle seem to generate legal snarls with considerable regularity.
And though the Amish have a reputation for isolation and backwardness, at least by the standards of general society, they still manage to pursue their faith with few interruptions.
“They’re adaptable,” Bontrager said. “They try to keep up with the times.”
Their one-room country schools – the object of so much dispute and vilification in the days before Yoder – have also held up, and have even changed and grown when necessary.
“They attempt to make their education relevant,” Bontrager said. “I think their schools are quite effective for their way of life.”
This way of life, and the role the schools play in preserving it, were central to the legal arguments that carried the day in 1972.
Attorney Don Showalter, an expert in constitutional law in Harrisonburg, Va., helped make this point when the Yoder case went before the Supreme Court. In a friend-of-the-court brief he wrote in 1971 on behalf of Mennonite Central Committee, Showalter outlined the history of the Amish and tried to show the uniqueness of their entire way of life, and how this was inseparable from their approach to religion.
“The whole idea of the compulsory education requirement of the state bumped up against the religious freedom rights of the Amish,” Showalter said. “We were able to develop in the Amish case that they were unique and had a long-established religion. We showed the court the legitimacy of the Amish movement through the ages . . . [and that] if in fact the Amish children would be required to go beyond the eighth grade, it would seriously affect the future of the Amish society.”
Don Guinn, now a partner in Showalter’s practice, specializes in cases dealing with education issues and believes that if a case like Yoder arose today, the outcome – and the arguments he would employ – would be exactly the same. “The decision is no less valid today than it was 30 years ago,” Guinn said, noting that it was the unique practices of Amish life – rooted in agriculture and the structure of the family – that made the Yoder case successful.
“There are few, if any, other groups that could make the same kinds of claims,” Guinn said.
Many Amish are moving away from agriculture as their sole means of support and embarking on other livelihoods. Still, Showalter and Guinn believe this will have no effect on any future challenges to the Yoder decision, which hinged in part on the key role of farming in Amish life.
“You still have the agrarian nexus” in today’s Amish society, Guinn said, noting that he could not imagine any potential challengers – such as a school district – making an issue of such subtle changes within Amish culture.
Instead, Showalter believes other issues – land use, environmental matters or child labor – could become the next broad legal challenge facing the Amish.
Still, he said, “it would be difficult for any of those issues to rise to the level of the education issue.”
This column was reprinted with permission from the Mennonite Weekly Review.