How 4 Perceptions of the Amish Helped Them Win at the Supreme Court

by | Published on Jul 16, 2021 Last updated Dec 19, 2023 | Amish Religion, Wisconsin v. Yoder

William Ball, the lawyer defending the Amish, spouted several hyperboles during his arguments. For instance, he said that “Amish life is a garden of nurturing for children.”

The most prolific Amish court case occurred in 1972. In this case, three men (one of whom was not Amish) argued over whether Amish children should have an education after the 8th grade. The United States Supreme Court ruled that the parent’s religious rights override the child’s choice in having an adequate education.

One of the reasons that the Amish were able to win this case was because the Supreme Court had no adequate knowledge about them. And neither did the majority of Americans. The National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom, a non-Amish Christian Right special interest group that hired the attorneys and paid the legal bills for the Amish, took advantage of this general ignorance about Amish religion and culture in order to win the case.

But what most people are not made aware of is that the Supreme Court also failed to enforce even basic due process for the Amish children, who were pawns of the National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom’s agenda (to push through the justice system wins for extreme and unconstitutional religious liberties). No guardian ad litem, which the children were legally entitled to, was part of the case. Had someone been appointed to represent the best interests of the children, perhaps Wisconsin v. Yoder would not have been ruled in favor of taking away a child’s Constitutional rights, on that fateful day 50 years ago.

Here are 4 misconceptions that helped the Supreme Court deny teenagers a high school education:

1. Amish life is one that consistently nurtures children, therefore their educational system is adequate.

William Ball, the lawyer defending the Amish, spouted several hyperboles during his arguments. For instance, he said that “Amish life is a garden of nurturing for children.”

While many can argue that living a life connected to the land is beneficial for a child, depriving them of education is not nurturing.

Also, blatant sexual abuse within the community is a huge problem. AHF’s founder Torah Bontrager spoke about this issue in her talk at the 2018 annual SNAP conference. She said that sexually violated [baptized] girls who managed to gain the attention of church leaders would have to apologize to their abuser in front of the whole baptized congregation. Otherwise, crimes like this remained swept under the rug . . . .

2. The Amish have never committed crimes.

Lawyer William Ball said, “The sheriff gave these people a complete bill of health. They have never been known for the commission of crime. I have not known anyone who has committed a felony in 250 years.”

This statement is entirely inaccurate.

Sexual abuse is not solely an Amish issue, it is an issue in many insular religious communities. These communities often have no sex education, and they do not punish those who commit assault. In addition, the Amish language does not even have words for “vagina” and “penis,” so how is a child going to convey how they are being abused?

Education is the first step. If a child cannot vocalize their abuse, then the outside world would not be convicting anyone of a felony, as they did not hear of the crime in the first place.

3. Child labor on the farm is equivalent to a vocational education.

Another false assumption the Court had was that the Amish were teaching their children the equivalent of vocational education. This was a false comparison, as Amish children do not even receive a foundational education. Amish children do not learn any science, civics, law, and current affairs, etc.

While the Amish do have their own agricultural methods, they are based on low-tech or no-tech tradition. In vocational schools, they are taught the science behind the methods. New York State’s Agriculture Program in Career and Technical Education said that students learn agricultural mechanics, horticulture, conservation, and biotechnology, etc. These are not equal, as Amish children have no awareness of basic scientific principles, because they do not learn science. 

In this clip from Breaking Amish, Maureen and Rosanna met up with a tutor to discuss taking the GED exam. The girls did not know what outer space is, and they did not know who George Washington was. Most notable was that one of these girls was a teacher! A child who only had a rudimentary 8th grade education and was raised on farm work was teaching the other Amish children.

While the Breaking Amish show is a scripted, fictionalized depiction of the Amish, this particular scene illustrates the difficulties that those who escape, resign, or leave face.

Having a subpar education up to the 8th grade creates massive difficulties when pursuing a GED. The Court, however, did not predict any Amish child leaving, because they are so “nurtured”. In reality, the Wisconsin v. Yoder ruling has nurtured a continuous cycle of ignorance.

4. Amish children are all followers of their religion, and they will stay within the religion because of their commitment.

Lawyer William Ball said, “They also found that appreciable numbers of the Amish-reared youth believe the [religion].”

Throughout the debate, he stressed that point multiple times. He insisted that an Amish child’s commitment to their religion creates a reason to take the child out of school, due to possible “psychological damage”.

However, most children, especially those raised in insular communities, are forced to practice the religion that their parents practice. From birth, they are given no choice as to whether or not they can practice it. If a teen escapes from or leaves the community, they will be shunned and/or excommunicated depending on the circumstances. Teenagers should not have to give up their relationship with their family just because they want an education.

Ball said during the debate that “[the Amish] point of view is not whether medical knowledge is necessarily good for the world. Their point of view is simply based upon the fact that they believe that they themselves may not pursue higher learning.” Imagine a teen wanting to become a doctor as Ball mentioned. This teen would have to reeducate themself in elementary education, pass the GED exam, then attend college, then medical school, and so on. That is incredibly difficult and next to impossible for such a person, who was taught by someone else with only an 8th grade education, too. 

This federally legalized educational neglect and abuse creates a dangerous situation for all the children, made even worse for those who escape or leave. By first depriving teenagers of a high school education and then shunning them if they escape, the teens are exponentially even more disadvantaged than had they received an adequate education. There are no educated family members to help them and they have no transferable skills, except in minimum wage or labor-intensive jobs such as construction or food service. While the teen will be physically grown, mentally they will have barely anything to use in “the real world”. In addition to all the other challenges, will be no culturally sensitive secular resources to help the teen reeducate themself. 

As a result of these misconceptions, the Court was convinced that Amish children had no right to any education that the religion or parents refused to allow. Parental control superseded everything else, under the mask of religious rights. This has enabled a culture of child abuse, which continues to cause lasting damage to children, and destroy many futures.

To education,
Summer Intern, Amish Heritage Foundation

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