I wrote recently about the children in some Ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools who spend most of their time studying the Torah and other religious materials and very little time on regular secular education, leaving them woefully unprepared to work in the modern world. As a result of that post, I became interested in the question of to what extent religious groups can deny access to secular education for their children.
The key legal precedent that is used to justify religious parents’ control over decisions concerning their children’s education is the 1972 case Wisconsin v. Yoder which looked at whether the Amish had the right to pull their children out of school at the end of 8th grade, even though state law required compulsory education up to the age of 16. In a case involving two Amish students who were only 14 and 15 when they completed 8th grade, the US Supreme Court ruled 6-1 that they did have the right to be withdrawn from school.
In his majority opinion Chief Justice Burger argued that that the ‘sincerity’ of the community’s religious beliefs was a key factor, and used the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment to justify giving preference to protecting the interests of the religious community over the interests of the individual child.
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.
The State stipulated that respondents’ religious beliefs were sincere.
In support of their position, respondents presented as expert witnesses scholars on religion and education whose testimony is uncontradicted. They expressed their opinions on the relationship of the Amish belief concerning school attendance to the more general tenets of their religion, and described the impact that compulsory high school attendance could have on the continued survival of Amish communities as they exist in the United States today.
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.
On the basis of such considerations, Dr. Hostetler testified that compulsory high school attendance could not only result in great psychological harm to Amish children, because of the conflicts it would produce, but would also, in his opinion, ultimately result in the destruction of the Old Order Amish church community as it exists in the United States today.
Although the trial court, in its careful findings, determined that the Wisconsin compulsory school attendance law, “does interfere with the freedom of the Defendants to act in accordance with their sincere religious belief,” it also concluded that the requirement of high school attendance until age 16 was a “reasonable and constitutional” exercise of governmental power, and therefore denied the motion to dismiss the charges. The Wisconsin Circuit Court affirmed the convictions. The Wisconsin Supreme Court, however, sustained respondents’ claim under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, and reversed the convictions.
In a strongly worded dissent, Justice William O. Douglas (who was often far ahead of his time in that many of his dissents later became the majority view) said that it was the child’s interest that should be paramount, not the religious interests of the parents or the community. He said that the lower courts should have canvassed the opinions of the students and not assumed an identity of interests between parent and child, pointing out that “Canvassing the views of all school-age Amish children in the State of Wisconsin would not present insurmountable difficulties. A 1968 survey indicated that there were at that time only 256 such children in the entire State.”
The Court’s analysis assumes that the only interests at stake in the case are those of the Amish parents, on the one hand, and those of the State, on the other. The difficulty with this approach is that, despite the Court’s claim, the parents are seeking to vindicate not only their own free exercise claims, but also those of their high-school-age children.
On this important and vital matter of education, I think the children should be entitled to be heard. While the parents, absent dissent, normally speak for the entire family, the education of the child is a matter on which the child will often have decided views. He may want to be a pianist or an astronaut or an oceanographer. To do so he will have to break from the Amish tradition
It is the future of the student, not the future of the parents, that is imperiled by today’s decision. If a parent keeps his child out of school beyond the grade school, then the child will be forever barred from entry into the new and amazing world of diversity that we have today. The child may decide that that is the preferred course, or he may rebel. It is the student’s judgment, not his parents’, that is essential if we are to give full meaning to what we have said about the Bill of Rights and of the right of students to be masters of their own destiny. If he is harnessed to the Amish way of life by those in authority over him, and if his education is truncated, his entire life may be stunted and deformed. The child, therefore, should be given an opportunity to be heard before the State gives the exemption which we honor today.
In a recent development, you may recall the case of Amish leader Sam Mullet and his associates who were sent to jail for forcibly cutting the hair and beards of those people whom he felt were heretics. It turns out (and I did not know this before) that prisoners are required to attend classes that lead to a GED, the diploma equivalent to high school, as part of the attempt to help them rehabilitate into society upon their release. Mullet objected, saying that being forced to study beyond a certain level violated his religious beliefs. Upon review, the prison officials agreed to exempt them from the requirement.
It is quite extraordinary that even adults will reject education because of their religious beliefs, so afraid are they that knowledge will weaken religion’s hold on them. Is it any wonder that the Amish (and the Hassidic) communities are also some of the poorest because they have such low levels of education?
I suspect that just as the shift to the best interests of the child was a key step in enabling the adoption of children by gay parents, a similar shift may in the future end the power of religious communities to stultify the intellectual growth of their children by only allowing them access to a useless religion-heavy curriculum.