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The Yoder Case: Religious Freedom, Education, and Parental Rights.

The Yoder Case: Religious Freedom, Education, and Parental Rights. By Shawn Francis Peters. Landmark Law Cases and American Society. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2003. viii + 199 pp. $29.95 cloth; $14.95 paper.

As fans of the blues know, the formulaic can be interesting, even fulfilling. So it seems with judicial case studies; there is the description of the conflict and its historical context, the accounting of the case's progress through the court system, and the sidebars on the various participants. In the area of church-state conflict (one small subset of this genre), there are a number of good accounts--I particularly admire Winnifred Fallers Sullivan's Paying the Words Extra (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994), an analysis of the Supreme Court ruling in the Lynch v. Donnelly creche decision--but every fan has a favorite.

Shawn Francis Peters has provided a competent accounting of another "landmark" decision in church-state relations, Wisconsin v. Yoder, a case from the early 1970s that pitted the state of Wisconsin and its compulsory education requirements against the state's Amish community (many of whom had migrated there after similar conflicts in other states), who believed that public schooling beyond the eighth grade threatened the community's sense of separation with the world by introducing materials beyond the basic skills necessary for their communal, agrarian lifestyle. Peters's work follows the standard pattern, describing the local conflict, providing historical background of the Amish, a brief history of mandatory age requirements in public schools, descriptions of the significant players, and the expected accounting of the case as it worked its way up through the Wisconsin state judicial system and then on to the United States Supreme Court.

Peters's presentation, while clearly sympathetic to the Amish, highlights flaws in arguments on both sides of the issue. He notes that the initial animus for the charges brought against the Amish was the loss of funds to be realized by the local public school system from a reduced student population if the Amish withdrew their children from school. The system received an allocation based on the population of school children enrolled through a particular date early in the semester, and a local school superintendent asked the Amish community to keep their children in the system long enough for them to be counted for the state allocation. When the parents refused to go along with this charade, the local officials began proceedings.

On the other hand, Peters is also critical of the Amish, or rather those making their case for (and sometimes in spite of) them. Particularly in his last chapter, he analyzes the major weaknesses of the arguments used to defend the Amish withdrawal. For example, the state statute merely required the children to remain in any school until the age of sixteen, not just public school. Had the Amish community provided a certified, community-based alternative education (like other Amish communities did, and like many Jehovah's Witness communities had done when their own children were disciplined for not saluting the flag in the 1930s and early 1940s), they could have avoided the entire conflict. In addition, those defending the Amish parents seemed to dismiss the rights of the Amish children--in part because the fine for truancy is levied against the parents, so it was they who were charged and not the children, and in part because of their desire to use the case to broaden religious alternatives to public schooling (parochial, home schooling, and so on), and not as a challenge of the state's authority of parens patriae. Nonetheless, the rights of the children not only to receive an education but to be prepared for a non-Amish life if they so choose were not overlooked and were cited by a few of the justices of both the Wisconsin and the U.S. Supreme Courts. Peters ponders how different the ultimate resolution might have been had the timing been slightly different--soon to be United Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, Richmond attorney and member of the Virginia State Board of Education who was not yet confirmed when the case was argued, might have brought an entirely different perspective (and possible outcome?) to the case.

Behind the legal maneuvering, however, Peters portrays the difference between the combatants (Wisconsin's attorneys versus the National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom, represented primarily by William Ball) and those most directly involved in the conflict--the Amish families. Much like many "test" cases, this one took on greater significance the moment NCARF persuaded reluctant members of the Amish community to let them represent the case pro bono. Often portrayed as a three-way conflict between the state's desire to create educated citizens, the Amish (and by extension, all Americans') desire for religious freedom, and the desire of parents to control the educational experiences of their children, the case has come to be considered a landmark in church-state relations. But as Peters illustrates, it was a Pyrrhic victory. Not only was the decision so narrowly written as to be easily dismissed in other (even similar) circumstances, but it romanticized the Amish--would members of the Unification Church have been treated gingerly?--and was ultimately gutted by the Court's ruling in Oregon v. Smith (1990), in which the Court protected the state's right to criminalize peyote (regardless of its ritual use) on the grounds that the restriction was generally applicable and had been passed by an authorized legislative body without particular animus. Ironically, in the end many of the members of the Amish village that had been the sight of the conflict chose to relocate; because of their victory, they were now subject to increased media attention, creating internal disagreement over appropriate levels of engagement with the nonAmish world.

Other than with the brief analysis in the final chapter, Peters's investigation rarely goes beyond simple reportage of the events and people involved in the case; but given the history of this genre, he never really has to. The story is the star, and Peters presents it clearly, concisely, and with some drama. Fanatics may quibble a bit with his presentation of some legal theory--I disagree slightly with his analysis of Sherbert v. Verner--but on the whole the work is solid, steady, and satisfactory.

Eric Michael Mazur

Bucknell University
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Author:Mazur, Eric Michael
Publication:Church History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2006
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