Respondents, members of the Old Order Amish religion and the Conservative Amish Mennonite Church, were convicted of violating Wisconsin's compulsory school-attendance law (which requires a child's school attendance until age 16) by declining to send their children to public or private school after they had graduated from the eighth grade. The evidence showed that the Amish provide continuing informal vocational education to their children designed to prepare them for life in the rural Amish community. The evidence also showed that respondents sincerely believed that high school attendance was contrary to the Amish religion and way of life and that they would endanger their own salvation and that of their children by complying with the law. The State Supreme Court sustained respondents' claim that application of the compulsory school-attendance law to them violated their rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment.
1. The 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 of the First Amendment and the traditional interest of parents with respect to the religious upbringing of their children. Pp. 213-215.
2. Respondents have amply supported their claim that enforcement of the compulsory formal education requirement after the eighth grade would gravely endanger if not destroy the free exercise of their religious beliefs. Pp. 215-219.
3. Aided by a history of three centuries as an identifiable religious sect and a long history as a successful and self-sufficient segment of American society, the Amish have demonstrated the sincerity of their religious beliefs, the interrelationship of belief with their mode of life, the vital role that belief and daily conduct play in the continuing survival of Old Order Amish communities, and the hazards presented by the State's enforcement of a statute generally valid as to others. Beyond this, they have carried the difficult burden of demonstrating the adequacy of their alternative mode of continuing informal vocational education in terms of the overall interests that the State relies on in support of its program of compulsory high school education. In light of this showing, and weighing the minimal difference between what the State would require and what the Amish already accept, it was incumbent on the State to show with more particularity how its admittedly strong interest in compulsory education would be adversely affected by granting an exemption to the Amish. Pp. 219-229, 234-236.
(d) The State's claim that it is empowered, as parens patriae, to extend the benefit of secondary education to children regardless of the wishes of their parents cannot be sustained against a free exercise claim of the nature revealed by this record, for the Amish have introduced convincing evidence that accommodating their religious objections by forgoing one or two additional years of compulsory education will not impair the physical or mental health of the child, or result in an inability to be self-supporting or to discharge the duties and responsibilities of citizenship, or in any other way materially detract from the welfare of society. Pp. 229-234.
49 Wis. 2d 430, 182 N.W.2d 539, affirmed.
Burger, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Brennan, Stewart, White, Marshall, and Blackmun, JJ., joined. Stewart, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which Brennan, J., joined. White, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which Brennan and Stewart, JJ., joined. Douglas, J., filed an opinion dissenting in part. Powell and Rehnquist, JJ., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
John W. Calhoun, Assistant Attorney General of Wisconsin, argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Robert W. Warren, Attorney General, and William H. Wilker, Assistant Attorney General.
William B. Ball argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief was Joseph G. Skelly.
Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed by Donald E. Showalter for the Mennonite Central Committee; by Boardman Noland and Lee Boothby for the General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists; by William S. Ellis for the National Council of the Churches of Christ; by Nathan Lewin for the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs; and by Leo Pfeffer for the Synagogue Council of America et al.