Supreme Court of The United States

Supreme Court of the United States: A Full Judge bench of Warren E. Burger, C.J., Lewis Powell, Harry Blackmun, William Brennan, William O. Douglas[1], Thurgood Marshall, Byron White, Potter Stewart and William H. Rehnquist, JJ. while addressing a review petition, upheld the decision as given by the Court originally, observing, “(…) courts must move with great circumspection in performing the sensitive and delicate task of weighing a State’s legitimate social concern when faced with religious claims for exemption from generally applicable education requirements.”


Respondents Jonas Yoder and Wallace Miller were members of the Old Order Amish religion and respondent Adin Yutzy was a member of the Conservative Amish Mennonite Church. They and their families resided at Green County, Wisconsin. The Wisconsin’s compulsory school attendance law required them to cause their children to attend public or private school until reaching age 16 but the respondents declined to send their children, ages 14 and 15, to public school after they completed the eighth grade on the pretext that the application of the compulsory attendance law violated their rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

The trial testimony showed that respondents believed, that by sending their children to high school, they would not only expose themselves to the danger of censure of the church community but also endanger their own salvation and that of their children. In support of their position, respondents presented as expert witnesses scholars on religion and education whose testimony is uncontradicted. The history of the Amish sect was given in some detail, beginning with the Swiss Anabaptists of the 16th century who rejected institutionalized churches and sought to return to the early, simple, Christian life de-emphasizing material success, rejecting the competitive spirit, and seeking to insulate themselves from the modern world. As a result of their common heritage, Old Order Amish communities today are characterized by a fundamental belief that salvation requires life in a church community separate and apart from the world and worldly influence. This concept of life aloof from the world and its values is central to their faith. The original case between the State of Wisconsin and the respondents was adjudicated in favour of the respondents; however, on a petition by the State the Court issued a writ of Certiorari, so to review the decision.


On Wisconsin State policy for Compulsory Education

The State advances two primary arguments in support of its system of compulsory education; (i) Relying upon the observation of Thomas Jefferson, some degree of education is necessary to prepare citizens to participate effectively and intelligently in the open political system, if we are to preserve freedom and independence. (ii) Education prepares individuals to be self-reliant and self-sufficient participants in society. It was the contention of the State that, in order to ensure welfare of the Children, who may be, did not wish to continue or abide by the belief system of the Amish community, must have an equal opportunity in terms of choosing their life path, which can only be achieved by holistic education. Wisconsin further concedes that under the Religion Clauses religious beliefs are absolutely free from the State’s control, but it argues that ‘actions,’ even though religiously grounded, are outside the protection of the First Amendment.

Belief set of Amish community and their way of life

The contentions of the respondents were firmly rooted in the ideologies of the community being practiced, since time immemorial. It was insisted that formal high school education beyond the eighth grade is improper, not only because it places Amish children in an environment hostile to Amish beliefs with increasing emphasis on competition in class, work and sports but also because it takes them away from their community, physically and emotionally, during the crucial and formative adolescent period of life. During this period, the children must acquire Amish attitudes favoring manual work and self-reliance and the specific skills needed to perform the adult role of an Amish farmer or housewife. While Amish accept compulsory elementary education generally, wherever possible they have established their own elementary schools in many respects like the small local schools of the past. In the Amish belief, higher learning tends to develop values that alienate man from God.


Whether religious belief/ practice of a particular sect can be a reasonable ground for non compliance with compulsory State law?

 Observations and Decision

The Court permitting the respondents, an exemption from compulsory higher education policy of the State, made the following observations;

On importance of Education

Reiterating the observation made in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Court said,

‘Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment.’ 

 On legitimacy of State’s concern for enforcing minimal educational standards

“…the State is not concerned with the maintenance of an educational system as an end in itself, it is rather attempting to nurture and develop the human potential of its children, whether Amish or non-Amish: to expand their knowledge, broaden their sensibilities, kindle their imagination, foster a spirit of free inquiry, and increase their human understanding and tolerance. It is possible that most Amish children will wish to continue living the rural life of their parents, in which case their training at home will adequately equip them for their future role. Others, however, may wish to become nuclear physicists, ballet dancers, computer programmers, or historians, and for these occupations, formal training will be necessary. There is evidence in the record that many children desert the Amish faith when they come of age.  A State has a legitimate interest not only in seeking to develop the latent talents of its children but also in seeking to prepare them for the life style that they may later choose, or at least to provide them with an option other than the life they have led in the past.”

 On applicability of First and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution

First and Fourteenth Amendments prevent the State from compelling respondents to cause their children to attend formal high school to age 16. “Our disposition of this case, however, in no way alters our recognition of the obvious fact that courts are not school boards or legislatures, and are ill-equipped to determine the ‘necessity’ of discrete aspects of a State’s program of compulsory education.”

 On allowing the exemption to the respondents from the Compulsory Education Policy of the State

“Aided by a history of three centuries as an identifiable religious sect and a long history as a successful and self-sufficient segment of American society, the Amish, in this case, have convincingly demonstrated the sincerity of their religious beliefs, the interrelationship of belief with their mode of life, the vital role that belief and daily conduct play in the continued survival of Old Order Amish communities and their religious organization, and the hazards presented by the State’s enforcement of a statute generally valid as to others.”

 Referred under Indian jurisprudence

 [State of Wisconsin v. Jonas Yoder, 1972 SCC OnLine US SC 92, Decided on May 15 1972]

[1] In his dissenting opinion said, “Students in school as well as out of school are ‘persons’ under our Constitution. They are possessed of fundamental rights which the State must respect, just as they themselves must respect their obligations to the State.”

Sakshi Shukla, Editorial Assistant has put this story together

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