The concept of skimming over conversations on religion or politics is non-existent in my home. Routinely we get in heated argumentative discussions. We challenge eachother’s ideologies and always call one each other out when one doesn’t have enough evidence. This family discourse is effective in ensuring we do not become accustomed to staying statement without facts but it is sometimes frustrating if one can not immediately recall everything fact from an article he or she just read. I often leave my dinner table frustrated wishing I could have constructed a better argument faster or I think of a fact I should have added in later. To ease this frustrations I often write down the argument I wish I had stated, even if no one ever sees it. This past evening, my family was discussing a variety of supreme court cases, one being “Wisconsin vs. Yoder”. A big component of our discussion revolved around civil liberties and freedom. I was challenging that we should promote education to unveil ignorance and within that people can have the freedom to make an educated decision. However in the bustle of conversation, I did not portray my points effectively. For this reason after dinner, I wrote this:
The first amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”. The Unites States was founded under the principles that citizens could practice their religion freely. Throughout history though, the country has faced challenges to maintain these freedoms. Often times, it comes down to the Supreme Court to interpret what exactly these religious freedoms should be and where the lines should be drawn. In the 1971 case, Wisconsin v Yoder, Jonas Yoder, an Amish man, and two others alike from Green County, Wisconsin, were prosecuted by a state law that required all children to attend school until they are at least sixteen years old. The Supreme Court had to decide, “Did Wisconsin’s requirement that all parents send their children to school at least until age 16 violate the First Amendment by criminalizing the conduct of parents who refused to send their children to school for religious reasons?” (Oyez).
Yoder argued that attending school was against the Old Amish Church beliefs and dangerous for the survival of their community. The Old Amish are descendents of Mennonites, dating as far back as the 1500s. They were originally prosecuted, but with the assistance of William Penn were promised religious freedom in America. Ever since, the Amish have tried to maintain their same culture patterns, as the society around them has made drastic changes. When attending primary school, Amish children were expected to learn only the abilities necessary to maintain the Amish lifestyle, farming, teaching, etc. Because the abilities for their life style were already achieved in lower school, Yoder and others saw no reason to send their children to any secondary school. The Kansas City University explained that Amish believed that high school education contradicted ideals to that of the Amish life style and stated “High school tends to emphasize intellectual and scientific accomplishments, self-distinction, competitiveness, worldly success, and social life with other students. Amish society emphasizes informal learning-through-doing; a life of “goodness,” rather than a life of intellect; wisdom, rather than technical knowledge; community welfare, rather than competition; and separation from, rather than integration with, contemporary worldly society”(KCU). There was a clear distinction between lifestyles but the question was, was this distinction strong enough to make an exception to a state law. The Amish parents definitely felt it was and went so far to say that “complying with the law would endanger their own salvation and that of their children”(Cornell Law). Eventually, the Supreme Court also agreed.
The Supreme Court argued this case in December 1971. and came to the conclusion that if the Wisconsin compulsory school attendance law were to be implemented upon this culture that it would infringe upon their rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Interestingly, this case was a unanimous vote of 7-0 with Chief Justice, Warren Burger leading the majority opinion. This decision was made under three main principles. First was that this law affected “fundamental rights and the traditional interest of parents with respect to the religious upbringing of their children”(cornell law). Second was that this law could destroy the free exercise of their beliefs. Lastly was that, the Amish have proven the “sincerity of their beliefs”. Their community depended on a specific interrelationship wayas of life and they’ve worked hard to maintain their culture. It was decided that because public Wisconsin education would have a strong “negative effect” on them that an exemption from this law would be granted in order for the Old Order Amish communities to continue their survival.
What I believe many of these justices are overlooking in this case is that the constitution is made to protect the minority, those without power. The minority in this case is not just the Amish as a whole, but more specifically the children of those Amish parents. Justice Douglass was the only member of the Supreme Court who voted with the Majority, but made a partial dissent considering the children. The Old Amish say that the public high school has conflicting ideologies but by denying Amish teenagers to listen to other perspectives, in my opinion, is not protection of their religion, but just ignorance to the world around them. If the community has such a strong religion, it should be strong enough to withhold faith against other opinions, options, and opportunities. Justice Douglass seems to explain this idea when he writes “no anaylysis of religious liberty claims can take place in a vacuum”(cornell law). Part of Yoder’s argument was that they need to be exempt from this law to have thire religion survive, but this exemption initiates survival by trapping any Amish individual from breaking free and experiencing something new. If members of the Old Amish Church community choose to leave, a majority of the time, if they return, they are shunned. The idea that if they leave, they can almost never return to the same lifestyle, is a rather eminent fact and force. However, the pivotal point in Douglas’s decision is that Frieda Yoder, the daughter of Jonas Yodar, testified that her own religious views are opposed to the high-school education. I wonder though whether her views were truly her own, or if they were just said due to the pressures of her parents and her community. Furthermore, even if Frieda truly believed in her values, who is to say that all of the Amish children affected by this law, want to follow in their parents and community’s footsteps? Justice Douglass explains this issue when he writes, “It is the future of the student, not the future of the parents, that is imperiled by today’s decision…He may want to be a pianist or an astronaut…If he is harnassed 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”(Douglass dissent Cornell Law). How is the possibility of stunting and deforming one’s life not be viewed as “clear and present danger”?
Throughout America’s history, ignorance has played a key role in different prejudices. The lack of knowledge and understanding is incredibly dangerous. It generates a constant power-struggle and often time traps the minority. When I read this case, I couldn’t help but think of “The Narrarative Life of Frederick Douglass”. In this autobiography, Douglass tells a story about his fight to escape from slavery. He explains that the main reason other fellow slaves did not fight the power is first, ignorance. Many slaves did not know there was any other way of life out there. Their education was restricted on purpose by their owners and many were lucky if they were even taught to read. The second was fear; fear mostly of the unknown, and fear of the repercussions from taking a risk. If a slave were to runaway, where would they go? If they came back, they’d be severely punished.
There are some distinct parallels between these situations and it makes me wonder whether restricting education in any community is ever “just”, even if it is claimed to be for religious freedom. Do the Amish children know a life any different? Is it their right to be educated on what else is out there? Again the factor of fear plays a huge rule. If any member of the Amish community decided to leave, a majority of the time the consequence would be a shunning, practically complete isolation. Perhaps the court just decided to “respect their religion” and decide that “ignorance is bliss”; it just seems interesting and contrary, and I would hope that the Justices would learn from our country’s history: the dangers of implementing ignorance on America.