Torah Bontrager left her Amish community in the middle of the night at age 15, crawling through a bathroom window while the rest of her family slept.
She traveled from Iowa to Wisconsin to live with an uncle who had also left the Amish church, hoping to get away from her parents, whom she describes as abusive.
It wasn’t an easy decision for her to make. She had to learn to survive on her own, but she believes that her decision to leave her Amish parents and their faith gained her something that is irreplaceable — an education.
The Amish are permitted by law, because of a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision, to take their children out of school after the eighth grade. For most families in the U.S., the law governing compulsory education mandates that children cannot leave school until they are 16 years old.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court decided that sending Amish children to high school would interfere with their ability to practice their religion.
Bontrager, who lives in New York City and earned a philosophy degree at Columbia University, and some other former Amish believe the Supreme Court decision is misguided and should be overturned.
Amish church officials, however, strongly disagree and believe that a mandatory high school education could threaten the Amish way of life.
Bontrager is the founder and director of the Amish Heritage Foundation, an organization she started in 2018. The organization’s website says it is working to reclaim “our Amish story.”
The organization’s mission is to overturn Wisconsin v. Yoder, the 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision that allows Amish parents to forgo compulsory education for their children after the eighth grade. The foundation is sponsoring a Nov. 16 conference in New York titled “Overturning WI v. Yoder: Making Education a Federal Right for All Children.”
The organizations hope to find a plaintiff opposed to the ruling who would be willing to initiate a court case that would eventually wind up before the Supreme Court and possibly lead to Wisconsin v. Yoder being overturned. The ideal plaintiff, Bontrager says, would be an Amish teenager who wants an education but is being denied one by his or her parents.
“If we can't find that person, then it would be a group of people like me, who have seen the negative effects after all these years and have realized the negative impact of Yoder,” she says.
Why does Bontrager and her organization want the decision overturned? She gives three reasons, which also are stated on her organization’s website:
— It violates a child’s constitutional right to a quality education.
— It enables child abuse in the name of religious freedom.
— It fosters gender inequality.
Leaders of the Amish church oppose Bontrager’s mission.
“The few people that left the Amish, I don’t think their story is fair; that’s only a few people,” says an Amish leader who did not want to be named because the religion asks its members to shun publicity. “I think if you … toured the Amish community you would probably find that 99% of people want to keep [education] the way it is.”
He says the Amish community believes children do not need a high school education to succeed. To illustrate that view, he points to the many successful, Amish-run businesses in Lancaster County. He mentions that these are all run by people who only attended school until the eighth grade and never had a formal business education.
“I do not think we are cheating our children,” the Amish leader says. “Now, as far as going to high school, getting an education as far as being a doctor, a lawyer, that kind of thing is not really an accepted thing in our community anyhow.”
And he points out that those who do want to pursue an education past the eighth grade can choose to leave the religion. If an Amish teenager leaves the church before they are baptized, he says, they are not ex-communicated or shunned, because they were never a member to begin with.
Bontrager and other members of the foundation, however, believe that the lack of a high school education severely limits the decisions Amish children can make about their own future. Most Amish do not decide if they want to be baptized into the church until they are at least 18 years old. By that point, however, they would have already missed high school, they say, and if they choose to leave the religion they would have to find an alternative route to higher education.
Marci Hamilton, CEO and academic director at CHILD USA, a Philadelphia nonprofit, agrees with Bontrager that it’s difficult for an Amish youth to leave the church.
“They're threatened with shunning, so it’s not that they have the capacity to just say one day, ‘I think I'll go live a nice life and not be Amish,’ ” she says. “The Amish make it very difficult and these individuals are not adequately educated to support themselves.”
There’s too much pressure, she says, on children to make a decision — whether it’s before or after they're baptized into the church.
“We know that from the science of child development, we know that the human brain is not fully developed in its decision-making capacity until age 26,” Hamilton says. “So putting all of this on the child's shoulders to just walk away is cruel, but also society is being harmed by these children not being prepared for their later lives.”
Those who have left the religion and ventured into the “English” world without an education past the eighth grade say it is not an easy path to pursue.
Jonathan Fisher grew up Amish in Lancaster County. He says he didn’t mind not going to high school, but only because he had no idea what he was missing.
“It was only much more gradually, later in life, I became more aware of what it would have been like to go to high school and what it would be like to leave the Amish, which I did when I was 25 years old,” he says. “And I will say, and I am willing to say this to anybody at any time, that I can’t think of anything that I am more glad of that I did in my life.”
He initially lived in Lancaster city. He worked to get his GED, which he needed to apply for most jobs, even blue-collar ones, like truck driving.
By the time he realized he was interested in pursuing higher education, he was already deep into a career that supported him and his family. There was no opportunity to take time off to go back to school.
“And so now in retrospect, the older I get the more I wish I would have chosen a specific career and gone to college and had a more satisfying career,” he says.
Many have similar stories.
One former Amish woman who did not want to be identified because she had been sexually abused as a child, says she left the church because she did not want her children to grow up in the same kind of environment that she did.
“I saw no future for my kids, because I didn’t have the vocabulary for all the things that happened in my life, but I had this desperate need to leave,” she says. “Because I felt like there was no help for me, and I didn't want to happen to my kids what happened to me.”
Once she entered the “English” world, she realized she would need a GED to homeschool her children. She earned her GED and did homeschool her children but at that time saw no need for higher education.
However, the more time she spent away from the Amish, the more she saw its value. Her daughters have taken college courses, and so has she.
Rachel Martin says she feels lucky that she did graduate from high school, despite being raised Amish in Lancaster County. During the eighth grade, her father left the church but her mother stayed. He insisted Martin attend high school. At first, she didn't want to go.
“[My father] said I had to go the first year, and after the first year I didn’t even consider not going anymore," Martin says. “But it was just such a foreign concept at that time because everybody I knew stopped school after eighth grade. They went out and got a job, and started making money."
While it was a difficult adjustment for Martin to make to attend high school with students who were not Amish, she says she didn’t find the curriculum to be all that challenging — except for science, which she had no background in.
Martin spent her senior year in a training program at a career and technology center. Her chosen field was art and design, which allowed her to learn to use Photoshop and apprentice at a local company.
She says those skills helped her to start and run her own company.
Most Amish schools do not teach any science. Many states, including Pennsylvania, do not place regulations on what private religious schools teach, or who teaches them, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
“I guess we don't really view it as [necessary]; there’s probably some of that done but not much,” the Amish leader says. “It’s just kind of an extra if they need something else to do.”
That is true in many Plain communities.
Jasper Hoffman, host of the “Plain People's Podcast,” received no education in science whatsoever at her Old Order Mennonite school in southern Illinois. The books at her school. she says, had several pages glued together or completely blacked out if they had references to science, pop culture or anything else the school didn’t want the children to experience.
When Hoffman left the church, she was just about to turn 18. She wanted to continue her education, so she had to get her GED and take the ACT standardized test if she wanted to be admitted to a college or university.
“I had to study my ass off for my GED because I didn’t have any of the math or the science portion of it. I was really scared,” she says. “… It was very overwhelming.”
She eventually pursued her passion of studying animal science in college, but she found it difficult to keep up with her classes because she didn't have the necessary academic background or study tools that other students possessed.
“I didn't know how to take notes. I didn't know anything," Hoffman says. "And I really didn't know how to go in and tell somebody I need help, ... Cause that was so humiliating. I just wanted to fit in.”
The Amish leader who spoke with LNP says he believes Amish students do not want to attend high school, and that he's never heard them express an interest in it.
Another Amish man, who also did not want to be identified because the religion frowns on publicity, expresses his sadness at having to leave school back in the 1950s. He says that he would often read encyclopedias for fun after completing his assignments, and cried the day that he finished the eighth grade.
“I never went to high school,” says the man, who is considered an Amish lay historian. “I would have loved to. I cried the day school was over. I was just a wee little guy, not very much for baseball or sports, not good at football or soccer,” he says. “But I liked lessons and liked to learn, so I did well in school.”
However, he says, he understood that he simply had to abandon school so he could work on the farm. And he believes Wisconsin v. Yoder represented a great victory for the Amish that helps preserve their heritage.
“We support [the decision] wholeheartedly in Lancaster County,” he says. “All the Amish across the world supported that. In fact, even the horse-and-buggy Mennonites and the holy Mennonites supported that.”
Donald Kraybill, who is widely considered an expert on the Amish and is the Distinguished Professor and Senior Fellow Emeritus at the Young Center of Elizabethtown College, argues that Amish education teaches what is necessary and practical for the Amish to learn. If they are only ever going to exist within the Amish community, he says they do not need anything else.
Ann Taylor, who grew up Amish on a farm near Intercourse, later left the church and is the author of “Born Amish: Life Before the Ex-Communication,” sees some truth in this.
“They teach you how to be a good businessperson and how to be a good farmer,” says Taylor, who earned her doctorate in adult education at Temple University. “They teach the practicalities of financing, bookkeeping, marketing. … And it’s based on what they need in their culture.
“And they get a good education for that, but I feel sorry for anyone who wants to transfer out of that into something else.”
Amish education focuses on hands-on learning. The schools, according to the Amish leader, focus on the three R’s: reading, writing and arithmetic. Additionally, he says, they teach geography, history and health.
For the Amish, the marker of success is the many businesses that the Amish run.
“They’re creative, they’re savvy. They're doing well. So why would [they] need more than eighth grade?” Kraybill asks.
But why not send their children past the eighth grade in their own schools?
It's simply not necessary for their way of life, he says. It works for them.
“I don't think everybody else should necessarily follow the Amish model,” Kraybill says. “I think the Amish model works because it’s embedded in this strong community.”
And in the Amish community, they don’t view what they would learn after the eighth grade as necessary.
“We feel that’s the basics, and the basics are good enough. Basics is all that's required,” the Amish lay historian says.
Bontrager, however, begs to differ. She believes Amish children, like most children in the U.S., should have the opportunity to pursue an education past the eighth grade.
“[The government needs to] ensure that our children, who are U.S. citizens, no matter what religion they come from, are educated sufficiently to be able to function and thrive,” Bontrager says. “And compete in the world today. Instead of not having a chance.”
— Erika Riley was an intern at LNP this past summer.