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Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972)

Key points

  • The state of Wisconsin fined three Amish families for refusing to send their children to school past the eighth grade. State law mandated that all students attend school until age 16.
  • The Amish families’ case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the Wisconsin law violated their right to free exercise of religion.

Background of the case

In 1971, the state of Wisconsin fined three Amish families for refusing to send their children to school beyond the eighth grade. Wisconsin law stipulated that all children had to attend school until age 16, but the Yoder, Miller, and Yutzy families believed that further education for their children would damage their religious beliefs. The Amish believe in simplicity, and the families considered worldly education harmful to maintaining their way of life.
Photograph of an Amish family riding in a buggy pulled by a horse. In the background, there are barns and silos and many acres of farmland.
An Amish family riding in a buggy in Pennsylvania. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Although the Amish do not believe in undertaking legal action, a foundation set up on their behalf brought suit. They argued that the Wisconsin law violated the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise [of religion].”
The Supreme Court ruled on the case in 1972.

The Constitutional question at stake

Did Wisconsin’s law requiring that all students attend school until the age of 16 violate the free exercise clause by criminalizing the actions of parents who refused to send children to school for religious reasons?


Yes, the Wisconsin law violated the Amish families’ right to free exercise of religion. The Court agreed that mandatory high school education was likely to damage the religious upbringing of the Amish students. Since the Amish community is well-established, the Court believed its children were unlikely to become a burden on society. As Chief Justice Warren Burger explained:
“The conclusion is inescapable that secondary schooling, by exposing Amish children to worldly influences in terms of attitudes, goals, and values contrary to beliefs, and by substantially interfering with the religious development of the Amish child and his integration into the way of life of the Amish faith community at the crucial adolescent stage of development, contravenes the basic religious tenets and practice of the Amish faith, both as to the parent and the child.”

Why does Wisconsin v. Yoder matter?

In Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Court prioritized free exercise of religion over the state interest in an educated populace. The Court ruled that the individual liberty to worship freely outweighed the state’s interest in forcing students to attend school.
Check your understanding
Based on the ruling in Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Supreme Court is most likely to view which of the following as a free exercise case?
Choose 1 answer:

What do you think?

One of the justices, William O. Douglas, lodged a partial dissent in this case, arguing that the students themselves (not just their parents) should have been able to weigh in on whether they wanted to continue their schooling. Should the Supreme Court have taken the opinion of the students into account in this case? Why or why not?
What happens when the free exercise of religion conflicts with compelling government interests in its citizens’ education, health, or wellbeing? Should families be permitted to continue religious practices that the government finds harmful to children?

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