Before 1950, most Amish students attended public schools but left before eighth grade.
Ann Taylor, who was born Amish, remembers going to a public one-room school in Intercourse. The teacher, she says, would tell the non-Amish girls that they might attend college one day. But she told the Amish girls that they would not, and they needed to work hard now because they wouldn’t be continuing on after the eighth grade.
Taylor says she didn’t quite understand what that meant.
“I remember thinking, I’m going to do that (attend college), but I didn’t know what it was. That was not a part of our world,” she says.
She later left the church and went on to earn a doctorate in adult education at Temple University in Philadelphia.
The government changed the compulsory education laws in 1949 after World War II, requiring children to remain in school until age 16.
When Amish parents refused to send their children beyond the eighth grade, many were arrested. Over the course of five years, 125 parents in Leacock Township alone were jailed.
In February 1955, Pennsylvania Gov. George Leader engineered a compromise between the Amish and the government’s compulsory education law. It required Amish students who had completed eighth grade to then attend an Amish vocational school three hours a week and keep a log of the work they did on their families’ farms.
The Feb. 8, 1955, edition of the former Intelligencer Journal included an editorial praising the decision. The editorial reads: “It can be hoped that the solution will end, once and for all, the senseless prosecution of a fine hard-working group of our fellow countians and that they once again will be able to till the soil and conduct their homes in full agreement with the law of their land, the dictates of their conscience and most important of all, the tenets of their religious beliefs.”
Not everyone liked the compromise.
Arthur P. Mylin, the county school superintendent from 1922 to 1958, told the Intelligencer Journal he thought the agreement was “ridiculous,” adding, “This whole office is opposed to it.”
While the conflict was resolved in Pennsylvania, it wasn’t in other states with Amish populations. Ohio had similar problems. Tensions arose in Iowa in the mid-1960s, when school officials arrived at a private Amish school to convince students to get on a bus to go to a public school. The photo of the children fleeing the bus is a famous image.
The case finally came to a head in Wisconsin. There, three Amish students stopped attending a Wisconsin high school because of their parents’ religious beliefs.
The case went to trial (Jonas Yoder, one of the fathers, represented the parents) and the parents lost.
William B. Ball, a lawyer from Harrisburg, took on the case and successfully argued it before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Wisconsin then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Ball argued that sending Amish children to high school was a threat to their way of life, providing contradictory viewpoints and unnecessary skills. And besides, he argued, the Amish way of life was not threatening American society.
Ball claimed that by making the children to go to school, the United States was impeding upon the Amish’s ability to practice their religion, therefore violating their First Amendment rights.
The court agreed, voting 7-0 (two justices took no part in the consideration or decision of the case) in favor of the Amish on May 15, 1972.
The Supreme Court held that state laws requiring children to attend school until they are 16 violate the constitutional rights of the Amish to free exercise of religion.
The decision specifically applied to Wisconsin, but it was written in terms broad enough to apply to all states that require attendance in public or private schools beyond the eighth grade.
— Erika Riley was an intern at LNP this past summer.