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Wisconsin v. Yoder

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Significance: Using the compelling interest standard, the Supreme Court held that a state could not require the children of some religious sects to attend high school.


Wisconsin's compulsory school-attendance law required children to attend public or private schools until the age of sixteen. The Old Order Amish Church was opposed to formal education beyond the eighth grade because such an environment promotes secular and competitive values contrary to the Amish way of life. After the eighth grade, however, Amish parents did provide additional career training and religious instruction in private homes. Jonas Yoder and another Amish parent were convicted and fined five dollars each for violating the law. By a 6-1 margin, the Supreme Court found that application of the law to Amish parents was prohibited by the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger balanced the free exercise claims of the parents against the state's competing interest in educating children. Although the state's interest in education was of “the highest order,” it was not absolute to the exclusion of all other interests. Burger emphasized the long history of Amish traditions and that the Amish alternative to education prepared young people to function effectively in later life. Referring to Sherbert v. Verner (1963), he noted that a law neutral on its face could be unconstitutional if it placed an undue burden on the free exercise of one's religious beliefs. Dissenting in part, Justice William O. Douglas wrote that the children themselves should have the choice of deciding whether or not to attend high school. In Employment Division, Department of Human Resources v. Smith (1990), the Court rejected the compelling interest standard in cases dealing with indirect burdens on religious conduct; thus, it is unclear whether Yoder continues as a binding precedent.