Overtunring WI v. Yoder: Making Education a Federal Right for All Children (and Bringing the MeToo Movement to Fundamentalist Communities)

 “Schpring! Schpring zu de velschken feldt!” shouted one of the Amish parents gathered to see their children off for their first day in an Iowa state or “English” school. The year was 1965, the bus had just arrived and the parent was urging the kids to, “Run! Run to the cornfields!” A photographer present to document the event snapped the photo that went viral, leading to national sympathy for the Amish who wished to preserve their traditional way of life which included no more than eight years of education in one of their own one-room schoolhouses.

The event led to the highlighting of issues that purported to be about religious freedom but which, according to Torah Bontrager, author of An Amish Girl in Manhattan, were in fact more about exploitation. Bontrager, who determined at the age of eleven to leave behind her family and the only way of life she’d ever known, finally escaped the community in the middle of the night when she was fifteen.

What ensued was anything but light and freedom. Her first “savior” was her formerly Amish uncle, Harvey Bell “(last known location: Alder or Sheridan, Montana, and/or Alaska), who raped me repeatedly. The day after the first night, he bought my silence with a death threat.” When, seeking refuge from that nightmare, she appealed to a second uncle, “Enos Bontrager (last known location: Fond du Lac, Wisconsin; prior location: Friesland, Wisconsin; place of business: Pride Originals Furniture Company, Cambria, Wisconsin)” he raped her as well.

Bontrager went on to earn degrees not only from high school but also from Columbia University, where she recently hosted a conference entitled Overturning WI. v. Yoder: Making Education a Federal Right for All Children. The name alludes to the 1972 Supreme Court case that arose out of the cornfields where those Amish children (one of whom was another of Bontrager’s uncles) had fled the state authorities in 1965. Jonas Yoder was a father fighting for the right to educate his children in the Amish tradition which ended at the eighth grade. In fact, Bontrager points out, it was not secular education that offended him. He himself had received instruction at the hands of an “English,” ie non-Amish teacher. His ire rose from the number of years that the state insisted on depriving him of the free labor of his children on the farm.

None of this was made obvious to the Supreme Court, however, and the Amish were permitted, in the sui generis case, to carry on with their idiosyncratic form of education, under the impression that they were a gentle, harmless people whose way of life needed to be preserved.

In researching a way to overturn the decision for the sake of other children who might be interested in the science, civics, world history, literature, music and sex education that the Amish system overlooks, Bontrager learned that the United States Constitution does not guarantee a right to education. However, the world has changed since 1972. Although the majority opinion in Yoder described the ways in which the Amish, even with their limited education, were productive members of society, the talk by Michael Rebell, Executive Director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University and the Keynote Speaker at the conference, brought out the need for today’s Amish to understand technology and issues such as climate change and civics in order to exercise their constitutional rights of voting and even freedom of speech.

The case is of interest not only to Amish. Other panelists at the conference included Noura Embabi, Co-founder, An-Nas: Humanists Rising from Muslim Communities; Dr. Mica McGriggs, who was raised in the Mormon church; Naftuli Moster, Executive Director, YAFFED (Youth Advocates for Fair Education) who was raised as a Hasidic Jew; and Carrie Pritt, a student of philosophy at Princeton University who was raised in a fundamentalist home that belonged to what is sometimes referred to as the Quiverfull movement.

Another speaker at the conference was a social worker appearing under a pseudonym because of threats on her life for bringing to light several instances of rape that she had encountered in the Amish community. According to Bontrager and others, whenever the police are summoned to deal with these cases, they defer to the authorities of the Amish church. The bishops, in turn, routinely blame the frequently underage girls for tempting the men. In a case where a father raped his daughters, they didn’t have to. His wife “knew” the fault lay with her for not adequately performing her conjugal duties.

Whether or not WI v. Yoder is overturned by the current conservative Supreme Court, the effort is sure to bring about long needed changes of the MeToo variety in fundamentalist communities.


Jenna Orkin is the author of Writer Wannabe Seeks Brush With Death.