Activities of individuals, even when religiously based, are subject to regulation by the states in the exercise of their power to promote the health, safety, and general welfare, or by the federal government in the exercise of its delegated powers; but areas of religiously grounded conduct, as well as religious beliefs, are protected by the free exercise of religion clause of the First Amendment and thus are beyond the power of the state to control, even under regulations of general applicability such as compulsory education.
Yoder and others, 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, which was designed to prepare them for life in the rural Amish community. The evidence also showed that Yoder 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 reversed the convictions, agreeing with defendants' 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.
Did Wisconsin's compulsory school attendance law unduly burden the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment by forcing Amish parents to send their children to public school after the eighth grade?
On certiorari review, the Court found that the parents' fundamental religious belief that they should remain "aloof from the world" was endangered by the enforcement of the public education laws. Although neutral on its face, the compulsory school attendance law unduly burdened the Free Exercise Clause. The parents educated their children at home in practical pursuits and prepared them to become functioning adults in their communities. The court held that accommodating the parents' religious objections by forgoing one or two additional years of compulsory education would not impair the physical or mental health of the child, 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 societal welfare.