Many of the blog readers will probably recognize the name of the 1972 US Supreme Court case Wisconsin v. Yoder. Just in case you don’t, this series will provide you with all the necessary background information to understand why, fifty years later, it must be overturned.

(Keep scrolling for the video version of this post.)

To comprehend the case, you have to know the background of the Amish people involved, represented by “Yoder”, i.e., Jonas Yoder. The Amish, as you might already know, are an insular group who have their theological roots in Anabaptism. Like the other Anabaptist sects, they reject the infant baptism of the Catholic, Orthodox, and some Protestant (e.g., Anglican and Lutheran) traditions because they believe in order for baptism to be valid, the person must have full knowledge and consent of what they are doing. They were baptizing people who had already been baptized as infants and the Catholic Church strictly forbade more than one baptism under Ephesians 4:5 and the Council of Carthage under St. Cyprian that was held in 257 CE. (For a brief history on the disputes over infant baptism versus adult baptism that arose out of the Protestant Reformation, check out “Baptism, Communion, and Confirmation in the Reformation Movement” or “The Reformers’ Defense of Infant Baptism”).

For these reasons, many Anabaptists (including the Amish) fled from Western Europe starting in the late 17th century to North America to escape religious persecution. Around 1693 in what is now Switzerland, Jakob Amman broke away from the Mennonite Church, which was led by former Catholic priest Menno Simons of the Netherlands, to establish what is now known as the Amish. Two distinguishing characteristics of the Amish religion, as opposed to the Mennonite, are . . .

. . . the uniformity in dress and the requirement on shunning church members who have been excommunicated.

Being patriarchal and exclusionary in structure, today’s practicing Amish society fundamentally prevents women from leading financially and educationally successful lives. Because the expectation — essentially a mandate — or outright requirement is placed on getting married young, immediately having children, and being a homemaker (or simultaneously working in a home-based business, not outside the home), female teenagers and adults are usually married before they would have been permitted to retain what they earned from their own jobs. Since the money goes to the father (if single until generally age 21) or to the husband (if married), a woman is almost never educated in financial literacy or budgeting (source: Amish Girl in Manhattan by Torah Bontrager). This makes her nearly completely dependent on her father or husband to survive. This subservience is a major reason why women or girls escape from or leave the Amish Church in significantly less numbers than men or boys. They are even more financially disadvantaged, vulnerable, and at risk than the males who enjoy ultimate status and privilege.

Part of the reason that Amish women and children are not adequately equipped to manage their finances is because of the structure of the Amish school system. Because they are not educated beyond the eighth grade and are only taught by Amish teachers, who themselves did not attend school past the eighth grade and are not certified educators, the average adult has only a third grade arithmetic ability and fifth grade English language ability. After being taken out of Amish school in the fourth grade, now non-practicing Amish Joe Slabaugh recalled that “my sister enrolled me in [a non-Amish religious] school [taught by the wife of a retired Mennonite pastor] because I wasn’t doing anything hardly at the house” (emphasis added).

The Supreme Court case Wisconsin v. Yoder, decided in 1972, was the result of several years of Amish communities in the Midwest protesting the government’s attempt to move Amish children from rural one-room public schools or Amish-only private schools into bigger consolidated public schools. The 1965 protests in Iowa, in which Amish parents ordered their children to flee to the cornfields to avoid getting bussed from their rural Amish-only school to the nearest urban public school, put the issue into the national spotlight and gained the attention of a conservative religious lobbying organization.

In order to “advocate” on behalf of the Amish defendants, the non-Amish special interest group National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom (NCARF) argued that the case was about the freedom of a group to act according to their religious beliefs. Because of the Amish community’s whiteness and heteronormative values, they were the perfect testing ground and example for “religious freedom” activists to exploit. What is important to realize is that for the Amish Church, Wisconsin v. Yoder was actually about parents being able to continue using free child labor and keeping the outside world ignorant of what goes on within their communities. And for NCARF, it was about setting a precedent in which increasingly more extreme religious freedom exemptions could be pushed through in other areas, including overturning or circumventing Roe v. Wade

There is a straight line from Wisconsin v. Yoder to the state of Roe v. Wade today. 

Stay tuned for the next next blog post, “Wisconsin v. Yoder at 50: What You Need to Know If You Care About Learning“, to learn more about this landmark case!

Watch the Video (coming soon)

Keep scrolling for the video version of this post.

To education,
E.P., Intern for the Amish Heritage Foundation

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

To the magic and joy of learning!

“Education is the key to freedom.”

— Torah Bontrager, Amish Educator, Writer, Author, Speaker

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