Jonas Yoder, Wallace Miller, and Adin Yutzy were members of the Amish church. The Amish believe that salvation requires life in a church community separate and apart from the world and that members of the community must make their living by farming or closely related activities. Yoder, Miller, Yutzy, and their families were residents of Green County, Wisconsin. Wisconsin’s compulsory school attendance law required children to attend public or private school until reaching the age of 16. Frieda Yoder (age 15), Barbara Miller (age 15), and Vernon Yutzy (age 14) finished the eighth grade in public school but had not attended public or private school thereafter. The Amish objected to their children attending high school because the values taught there were very different from Amish values and the Amish way of life. The Amish also believe that high school education takes children away from their community during the crucial and formative adolescent period when the children should be acquiring Amish attitudes toward manual work and attaining specific skills needed to perform the adult role of an Amish farmer or housewife.
After the school district brought a complaint against them, Yoder, Miller, and Yutzy were charged with violating Wisconsin’s compulsory school attendance law. The Amish argued that the law violated their free exercise of religion as guaranteed by the First Amendment. Trial testimony showed the Amish believed that sending their children to high school would not only expose them to censure by the church community but also would endanger their salvation as well as that of their children. The trial court determined that the state’s law did interfere with the Amish freedom to act in accordance with their sincere religious beliefs but that the requirement of high school attendance until age 16 was a reasonable and constitutional exercise of governmental power. The parents were convicted and fined $5 each. They appealed to a Wisconsin Circuit Court, which affirmed the convictions. The Wisconsin Supreme Court, however, agreed with the parents’ First Amendment argument and reversed their convictions. The state then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.