Stephen Andrew Kovach
Publication year: 2006

Deeply embedded within the concepts set forth by the U.S. Constitution is the notion that all Americans possess the right to practice their religious beliefs without fear of persecution.  The very fabric of American culture depends on the ability of its government to sustain a unified yet unfettered environment that supports the Constitutional right of free exercise for diverse religious groups through the promotion of the core liberal values of tolerance and acceptance.  Despite those liberal values, a dichotomy exists between liberal groups that do not respect or tolerate non-liberal cultures, and liberal groups that display excessive respect towards minority religions, thus exposing minority religious groups to the marginalizing effects of rejection by the former, and threatening to destabilize liberalism and the very basis of our national unity by the latter.  For example, some liberal theories maintain that it is a violation of a child’s Constitutional rights to deny them an education that is adequate to citizenship, and consequently do not support the religiously motivated Supreme Court decision of Wisconsin v. Yoder 406 U.S. 205 (1972), which permitted the Amish to exclude their children from a high school education.  In contrast, other liberal theories defend the Amish communities decision to exclude their children from a high school education, claiming that it is the parents Constitutional right and ethical responsibility to raise their children in a manner that will develop not only their physical and emotional needs, but will also foster their spiritual, cultural, and moral growth.  This paper will consider arguments and solutions based on contemporary liberal theories that both support and reject the notion that parents reserve the fundamental right to decide the fate of their children’s education.  In addition, this essay will argue that the decision in Wisconsin v. Yoder is erroneous because it is inconsistent with the Constitutional rights possessed by all citizens to choose the good life for themselves.

Do American children’s Constitutional rights entitle them to an education sufficient to promote autonomy and public competence?  The decision reached in Wisconsin v. Yoder, which gave the adult members of the Amish community the right to remove their children from school after the eighth grade, might seem like a liberal solution to independence because it provides parents with the opportunity that all Americans find necessary to pursue their own life plans with minimal intervention from the state.[1]  However, parents who publicly claim that their children are corrupted by, “exposure to beliefs and values that contradict their own religious views,” (Gutmann, 277) ultimately challenge state laws, and the politically liberal notion that children are not, “the property of their parents.”  (Arneson and Shapiro, 232)  Liberal democratic theory holds that in order for individuals to choose for themselves what constitutes the good life, it is necessary for the government to create an unencumbered environment that fosters freedom of choice.  Although a primary characteristic of a modern democracy is a substantial degree of religious autonomy from the state, parental claims should not be permitted to interfere with a democratic states requirement for compulsory education at an age when critical reason is developed.[2]  Some contemporary liberal theories suggest that the goal of education is to prepare children for lives of rational autonomy through the development of critical reasoning skills that will ultimately make them good citizens with the capacity to vote in an informed manner when choosing members of the legislature that create the laws, and for the judges who apply those laws.[3]  In addition, it is reasonable to ask parents to give up some control of their children because it is inconsistent with the concept set forth by the Constitution to force them to opt out of basic civic exercises that would educated them to meet the minimal prerequisites of citizenship.[4]  Therefore, because parents do not own their children, and because a good citizen is one that can exercise critical reasoning when voting for elected officials, combined with the fact that individuals possess the Constitutional right to choose for themselves what constitutes the good life, collectively sustain the premise that the decision in Wisconsin v. Yoder is flawed because it obstructs Amish children from a higher education.

A more tolerant yet liberal theory suggests that because, “parents and children’s interests are not…identical,” (Burtt, 289) the state must make exceptions for the various types of religious education available, because disturbing religious education prematurely deprives them of the skills necessary to, “make sense of the world,”(Burtt, 291) thereby insinuating that parents, not the state, reserve the right to determine what is best for their children.  It is virtually impossible to predict that a child will grow up to embrace the same religious beliefs as his or her parents, unless they are coerced into such beliefs.  However, because American parents and children are citizens living in an egalitarian society, it is logical to suggest that their interests are identical vis-à-vis the promotion of democratic society, thereby displaying the impracticality of entertaining the whims of parents that would dictate what their children are taught in public school.  It might be argued that the, “incremental value of two years of additional school” (Burtt, 290) does not necessarily develop the above-mentioned critical reasoning skills.  Nevertheless, it is illogical to suggest that fundamentalist parents, such as the Amish, are capable of teaching their children how to make sense of the world, because it assumes that the Amish parents are sophisticated, when in fact, they are isolationists void of worldly experience.  In fact, the Wisconsin v. Yoder decision supports an isolated lifestyle because it represents a form of, “government sponsored segregation,” (Eisgruber, 323) and presumes that people with, “distinctive and demanding worldviews,” (Eisgruber, 335) such as the Amish, who have no desire to, “bring an Amish state into existence,” (Arneson, et. al, 232) can live apart from the rest of society.  Furthermore, the Yoder decision fails to recognize that the level of education necessary to obtain the good life, “must be taught and learned.” (Galston, 284)  Instead, it implies that the Amish children will never move beyond the Amish way of life and into the kind of civic commitment that is facilitated by the type of education necessary for adequate citizenship because it insinuates that individuals are born with sufficient knowledge and therefore require no additional education beyond the eighth grade.[5]  Simply put, Amish children will have a very difficult time becoming, “astronomers or lawyers.” (Eisgruber, 327)  Finally, the segregating affects of Wisconsin v. Yoder violates the Amish children’s Constitutional rights to take advantage of the existing opportunities, such as holding public office, because it, “does not permit…a diverse education,” (Eisgruber, 327) thus suggesting that religious education is more important than civic education.  The fact that adults and children share a common interest in the promotion of democracy, together with the notion that the Wisconsin v. Yoder decision promotes segregation, along with the fact that children’s Constitutional rights are violated when they are subjected to any law that prevents them from obtaining a diverse education, collectively supports the premise that parents should not be permitted to interfere with their children’s education in public schools.

Of course, certain circumstances would support parental interference in a child’s education, even within the public school system, and the above-mentioned conclusions are not inclusive.  For example, if the teachings were, “repressive or discriminatory” (Gutmann, 278) the parents certainly reserve the right to intervene.  However, some overly-permissive liberal theories destabilize the democratic nature of our society by suggesting that the only way to justify constraining parental authority would be to prove that there is a, “complete family breakdown in family relations,”  (Burtt, 293) thereby insinuating that the state has no right to be involved with a child’s education, even in a public school.  Nevertheless, despite liberal views that undermine the nature of an egalitarian society, democrats are well within their Constitutional rights to deny parents the right to veto all matters related to religious teachings in public school.[6]  Fundamental religious groups tend to disagree that states ought to hold the authority to override parental rights in public school, and as a result, many Americans find it difficult to tolerate and accept the customs and strict religious practices of groups, such as the hardworking Amish, whose educational system is not designed to prepare children to live outside their community.[7]  Nevertheless, neither the fact that the Amish are not widely accepted, nor the fact that they disagree with state authority necessarily proves that they, or any other members of diverse religious groups, are definitely not good democratic citizens.  For example, the Hassidic Jews represent a minority religion that practices strict religious customs that are similar to the Amish, and live an isolated lifestyle, one that is characterized by anti-social behavior, and a desire to raise and educate their children according to their religious beliefs.  However, despite their isolationist characteristics, the Hassidic Jewish community displays a, “high voter turn-out rate” (Lupu, 355) that tends to vote frequently as a group, and is therefore consistent with the aforementioned characteristics of good citizenship.  The destabilizing effects of lenient liberal theories on a democratic society, combined with the fact that parents do not have the Constitutional right to dictate to the public school system, along with the voting record of the Hassidic Jews, collectively sustain the premise that parents who choose to control their children’s education might be violating their children’s Constitutional rights to education, but they ought not be deemed bad citizens, because the Hassidic Jews demonstrate that diverse minority religious groups can be good democratic citizens.

Alternative solutions to the aforementioned parent-state conflict vary.  Assiduous status notwithstanding, some contemporary liberal theorists discriminate against minority religious groups by suggesting, on the one hand, that America should not be happy about, “accommodating the Amish” (Macedo, 265) because the fact that they are hardworking, “does not mean that they are good liberal citizens.”  (Macedo, 265)  They argue that the Amish children are ill prepared to become critically reflective citizens and it suggests that we must consider pleas for accommodations and exemptions as long as it does not include permitting children to opt out of reasonable measures designed to educate them on the very basic liberal values.[8]  It addition, they support their theories by comparing cases similar to Wisconsin v. Yoder, such as Mozart v. Hawkins, a case that denied parents the right to remove their children from religiously oriented public school programs, as judicial confirmation that exposure to other religions does not constitute teaching about other religions, thus suggesting that the Wisconsin v. Yoder decision was erroneous.[9]  Other present-day liberal theorists suggest that alternatives to the parent-state conflict would ensure that decisions made on behalf of a child’s schooling would criticize anyone or any policy that would deprive children an education adequate for citizenship; that would dictate over common sense; or does not support educational institutions that are supportive of democratic deliberation.[10]  Still other potential solutions to the parent-state conflict might lie within the concepts of political liberalism, which does not seek to exclude religious people from the public realm or to curtail their political speech, but rather suggests that basic political rights can be justified through common reasons and arguments that are shared by all reasonable people, differing religious views notwithstanding.[11]  Indeed, many of the above-mentioned solutions must seem viable to those who embrace a liberal philosophy, however, it is naive to suggest that conservative Christians, for example, will ever dismiss their true feelings regarding sensitive religious issues simply because political liberal policies insinuate that doing so would benefit society.  The fact that mere exposure to religion does not constitute teaching religion, combined with the potential of political liberalism, which might provide a valid solution to the tensions between parents and the state, jointly sustain the premise that the decision in Wisconsin v. Yoder is erroneous because it is inconsistent with a child’s Constitutional right to choose the good life for themselves.  However, it should be noted that fundamentalist groups are unlikely to abandon their beliefs, thus rendering theories supported by political liberalism questionable at best.

On the other hand, modern-day liberal theorists that diverge from the previously-mentioned conjectures threaten to destabilize liberalism and the very basis of our national unity by suggesting that parents have the right to resist any public education that they deem destructive to their children’s religious life, and that a child’s civic education ought to take second place to their religious education.[12]  Theorists that hold that view also attempt to support their theories by referencing Mozart v. Hawkins, however, instead of jurisprudence; it focuses on the moral rights of parents and their interpretation of the Bible.  The parents in Mozart v. Hawkins believe that they possess a, “valid prerogative” (Burtt, 293) to control their children’s education, and some contemporary theorists suggest that focusing on children’s needs, rather than on adult liberties, is the solution to minimize the parent-state tensions vis-à-vis a child’s education.[13]  Simply put, in order to ensure the satisfaction of the children’s needs, neither parents nor policy makers must concern themselves with the parent’s conception of the good life because doing so de-emphasizes not only the emotional, physical, and cognitive needs of the children, but also their moral, spiritual, and cultural needs.[14]  Finally, modern liberal theorists suggest that the good life can be defined and consequently matched with a wide variety in parenting styles, thus enabling parents to shield their children completely from America’s large, secular highly commercialized culture.[15]  Although the liberal solution just described might seem sophisticated, it is in fact naïve to suggest that any one political philosophy can satisfy everyone, particularly one that attempts to broadly define the primary Constitutional concept of what constitutes the good life.  Additionally, suggesting that parents rights ought to supercede any child’s right to an education adequate for democratic citizenship send the wrong that any individual has the right to violate another’s Constitutional rights if it suits his or her personal needs.  If a resolution does exist, it will likely involve both the governments and the community’s ability to accept and tolerate minority religious groups.  On the one hand, if a religious group seeks an outcome that is detrimental to the good of society, one that would create a significant burden on the public, then it would not be appropriate to make an exception.  On the other hand, if the government decides that the public’s interest will be marginally affected by accommodating a particular religion, yet the burden on a particular group would be considerable, then it might be appropriate to make an exception.

The United States government has reason to encourage its citizens to be faithful to the Constitutional values of tolerance and acceptance because it supports ethical diversity; nonetheless, parents also have strong motives to control their children’s educational experience because the accepted method of child rearing in America suggests that parents are ultimately responsible for their children’s behavior.  However, responsibility is not synonymous with control, and allowing parents to impose their own religious beliefs on public schools, or remove their children from school completely, violates the liberating concepts set forth the Constitution, which guarantee all citizens the right to an education adequate to citizenship.  During those times when certain laws will be unable to satisfy everyone, minority religious groups must conform to the democratic concepts regarding the rights of all American citizens to live in an unfettered yet unified environment that permits them to choose the good life for themselves.















Arneson, R. J., & Shapiro, I.. Democratic Autonomy and Religious Freedom: A Critique of Wisconsin v. Yoder.

Burtt, S.. In Defense of Yoder: Parental Authority and the Public Schools.

Eisgruber, C. L.. The Constitutional Value of Assimilation.

Galston, W.. Civic Education in the Liberal State.

Gutmann, A.. Undemocratic Education.

Lupu, I. C.. Uncovering the Village of Kiryas Joel.

Macedo, S.. Liberal Civic Education and Religious Fundamentalism: The Case of God v. John Rawls?


[1] Burtt, S.. In Defense of Yoder: Parental Authority and the Public Schools. p.293

[2] Arneson, R. J., & Shapiro, I.. Democratic Autonomy and Religious Freedom: A Critique of Wisconsin v. Yoder p.232

[3] Arneson, R. J., & Shapiro, I.. Democratic Autonomy and Religious Freedom: A Critique of Wisconsin v. Yoder p.243

[4] Macedo, S.. Liberal Civic Education and Religious Fundamentalism: The Case of God v. John Rawls? p.264

[5] Galston, W.. Civic Education in the Liberal State p.283

[6] Gutmann, A.. Undemocratic Education. p. 278

[7] Arneson, R. J., & Shapiro, I.. Democratic Autonomy and Religious Freedom: A Critique of Wisconsin v. Yoder p.232

[8] Macedo, S.. Liberal Civic Education and Religious Fundamentalism: The Case of God v. John Rawls? p.266

[9] Macedo, S.. Liberal Civic Education and Religious Fundamentalism: The Case of God v. John Rawls? p.257

[10] Gutmann, A.. Undemocratic Education. p. 274

[11] Macedo, S.. Liberal Civic Education and Religious Fundamentalism: The Case of God v. John Rawls? p.258

[12]  Burtt, S.. In Defense of Yoder: Parental Authority and the Public Schools, p.289

[13] Burtt, S.. In Defense of Yoder: Parental Authority and the Public Schools. p.293

[14] Burtt, S.. In Defense of Yoder: Parental Authority and the Public Schools. p. 293

[15]  Burtt, S.. In Defense of Yoder: Parental Authority and the Public Schools.  p. 297