406 U.S. 205 (1972), argued 8 Dec. 1971, decided 15 May 1972 by vote of 6 to 1; Burger for the Court, Douglas in dissent, Powell and Rehnquist not participating. In this case the Supreme Court decided that the application of Wisconsin's compulsory high school attendance law to children of members of the Conservative Amish Mennonite Church violated the parents’ rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
The Court decided that a state's interest in universal education is not totally free from a balancing process when it impinges on other fundamental rights, such as those specifically protected by the Free Exercise Clause and the traditional liberty interests of the parents with respect to the upbringing of their children. The Amish had argued that enforcement of this law after the eighth grade would gravely endanger if not destroy their religious beliefs. They pointed to their long history as a self-sufficient religious community, the sincerity of their beliefs, and the interrelationship of those beliefs with a unique way of life, and the need to continue that interplay for the survival of the sect.
The majority concluded that the Amish met the difficult burden of demonstrating that their alternative mode of informal vocational education did not violate the objectives and important state interests upon which the Wisconsin Supreme Court had relied in sustaining the state's program of compulsory high school attendance. The Amish demonstrated that forgoing one or two additional years of compulsory education would not impair the physical or mental health of their children or their ability to become self-supporting and productive citizens. Moreover, the Amish argued that high school attendance emphasizes intellectual and scientific accomplishments, self-distinction, and competitiveness—all values opposed to Amish concerns for learning through doing, a life of goodness, support for community welfare, and separation rather than integration into worldly society.
The Court decided that genuine religious beliefs, not mere personal preference or philosophical wants, were behind the Amish claims. Also important to the Court was the breadth and historical constancy of Amish religious culture; the Court acknowledged that secondary school life would present a far greater threat to their religious community than grammar school. Compulsory high school attendance, the Court found, would undermine the Amish religious community by forcing young adherents to abandon the free exercise of their religion or move to more tolerant environs.
The Court rejected the State's claims that only religious beliefs, not actions, even though religiously grounded, are within the protection of the First Amendment. The Court drew on Sherbert v. Verner (1963) to argue that a regulation neutral on its face may in its application offend the constitutional requirement for government neutrality if it unduly burdens the free exercise of religion. Where parents’ interests in their children's religious upbringing are combined with a valid free exercise claim, more than the usual reasonableness basis test is needed to sustain the law.
The Court repeatedly emphasized the historical uniqueness and self-sufficiency of the Amish community. Indeed, it went out of its way to suggest that without such a long history, courts should not grant the exemption from compulsory school attendance laws. Few other groups, the Court said, will be able to carry the burden of showing that informal vocational education or other training will meet valid state interests in compulsory school attendance.