While listening to the audio of the US Supreme Court’s Wisconsin v. Yoder hearing, I felt a bit of frustration at how this trial turned out, and how it affected the future of Amish culture in general. Especially given the fact that it was a unanimous vote from the Supreme Court itself, I don’t understand how this would’ve been good for the Amish. For this post, I am going to discuss how the trial result has had a negative impact on the Amish for the last fifty years.

(Scroll to the end or click here for the audio/video version of this post.)

The trial audio was able to confirm my understanding of the Amish and their culture. In that, essentially, what the Amish got out of the trial was that the parents were allowed to have their child’s education end by the eighth grade, so they can focus on their religious beliefs. Take this with a grain of salt, since I’m not really religious, but I feel that taking away a child’s rights to an education that goes beyond the eighth grade so they can pursue their religious studies doesn’t feel right. By taking away their rights for this education, they also take away their future, and ensure that the child lives the way that the parents want them to live, instead of letting them decide that for themselves.

According to the trial, John Calhoun talked about how the “state’s interest in establishing and maintaining an educational system overrides the defendant’s right to the free exercise of religion”. Calhoun was the attorney arguing for the “state”, specifically for Wisconsin’s compulsory school attendance law, which was that . . .

. . . children were required to remain in public or private school until age 16 at that time.

William Ball was the attorney arguing for the “defendant”, in this case the parents of the children who were forced by their parents to stop attending school several years before they reached age 16. Ball talked only about the parents’ right to the “free exercise of religion” to stop sending their children to school. I fail to understand how this is considered freedom, however, because the parents were essentially given permission to strip their own children of their rights.

According to the hearing, the Amish believe that life is a short pilgrimage and that all human beings should strive towards their salvation in the arms of God. As part of this belief, they do not want their children nor themselves to be exposed to the temptations of lust or strife, and so try to steer clear from those educations, instead focusing on the education for agricultural life. From an outside perspective, you could argue that this negatively encourages the children to view their lifestyle from a very narrow mindset, with a clear future decided for them by their parents.

Assumptions About the Amish Flawed the Trial and Decision

Another reason why the trial itself is flawed is because of the assumptions surrounding the Amish themselves during the trial. I can understand the seemingly good intentions behind the decision, but I feel that it was made due to a lack of information surrounding the Amish, and that they only knew about the myths and stereotypes. It could be argued that due to the myths, most of the experts most likely didn’t know too much back then.

One of the legitimate experts, Dr. John Hostetler, who was Amish himself (i.e., nonpracticing Amish turned practicing Mennonite), stated that the primary aim of education for the Amish is to get to heaven, and that a child’s education should matter for them up until their teens. I’m confused as to what exactly he means by a child’s education “should matter” until their teens, as Hostetler made it clear that he was on the side of the parents and not the children. Does getting to heaven not require continuing a child’s knowledge past a rudimentary eighth-grade Amish-approved curriculum?

Overall, I feel that the trial decision resulted in an overall negative impact for Amish culture over the last fifty years. It essentially put the nail in the coffin for Amish children’s rights by dropping them out of an education after the eighth grade so they can solely focus on their religious practice. However well intentioned the Supreme Court was in their decision, unfortunately they were not informed enough regarding the Amish lifestyle — or they simply did not care enough about the children’s constitutional rights.

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