This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Dark side to Amish religious freedom?

Though the U.S. Supreme Court’s Wisconsin v. Yoder decision has traditionally been hailed as a religious freedom victory for the Amish, some Amish people want to challenge the 1972 ruling. That’s one thing the founders of the Amish Heritage Foundation, a new organization with a goal “to reclaim our Amish narrative,” will discuss at their first conference.

“Disrupting History: Reclaiming Our Amish Story” is the theme of the event, scheduled Sept. 28-29 at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

Amish young men bale hay near Quarryville, Pa. The Amish are exempt from compulsory education after eighth grade. — Dale D. Gehman
Amish young men bale hay near Quarryville, Pa. The Amish are exempt from compulsory education after eighth grade. — Dale D. Gehman

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Amish, exempting them from compulsory education past the eighth grade.

“It’s identified as a religious freedom victory,” said Elam Zook, director for the development of Amish literature of AHF. “But for Amish children, it was fundamentally the absolute and complete opposite. . . . It was actually a betrayal of the core tenet of Anabaptism, which was adult baptism, which was about making a decision to become a member of the sacred community.”

Zook identifies as a “noncompliant Amish” person, like someone who identifies as culturally Jewish but does not practice the faith.

“We are not in compliance with church ordnung [rules], but we can’t erase our identity,” he said. “It’s always going to be there no matter what we do or where we go.”

Zook traced the development of the Old Order Amish to the latter 1800s, when the majority of Amish — Zook said 75 percent, while the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online gives a figure of two-thirds — moved toward reuniting with the (Old) Mennonite Church, and the remainder became known as Old Order Amish.

“What I argue is that the majority were simply evolving with the larger progression of humanity. . . . The group who became the Old Order Amish saw that and reacted to it,” Zook said.

Because of this, he said, a pattern developed of Old Order Amish resisting anything they saw their “progressive” counterparts doing — including critical evaluation and adjustment of their own beliefs and practices.

“It became a point of religious fealty to not engage the issues in their lives,” Zook said.

Zook believes that given enough time, the Old Order Amish would have eventually become somewhat more culturally assimilated. But once the Wisconsin v. Yoder ruling limited government oversight of Amish children’s education, he said, the Amish “essentially became completely detached from any engagement [in society].”

In the program for the conference, Zook’s core argument is stated: “[Wisconsin v. Yoder] directly created an embrace of ignorance and a poverty of literature among our Amish people, and in the process, ran rough­shod over our legal rights as Amish children and adults. Wisconsin v. Yoder is responsible for freezing us Old Order Amish in time; we have stopped evolving from this point forward.”

Not allowed to question

The AHF launched this year but was 20 years in the making, said executive director Torah Bontrager.

As a child, she heard the story of Harriet Tubman assisting escaped African-American slaves along the underground railroad.

“I told myself if I escaped and I made it, I would create an Amish underground railroad for those who wanted to transition to the outside world,” she said. “That’s what the Amish Heritage Foundation is.”

A survivor of recurring rape, Bontrager escaped from home at night when she was 15. She says she is the only first-generation Amish graduate of an Ivy League school, with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Columbia University of New York City.

She said the outcome of Wisconsin v. Yoder created a lack of freedom for Amish children.

“Depriving us of our ability to pursue education beyond the eighth grade is analogous to infant baptism,” she said. “The basic principle of Anabaptism is to give an adult a choice.”

She said it’s against the Amish faith to question the rules, analyze the Bible or use critical thinking, though she grew up revering Anabaptist martyrs who did those exact things.

She recalled, as an 8-year-old, seeing the picture of the famous Anabaptist martyr Dirk Willems choosing to rescue his pursuer, who had fallen through the ice on a frozen pond, rather than leaving him behind and escaping.

“[My mother] told me he was sent back to prison and later tortured and died,” she said. “And that’s what we must do; we must never deny our faith, even if we get burned at the stake. That’s set in stone; that’s never to be challenged or questioned or analyzed.”

Bontrager said the Amish are taught that their forebears died for an interpretation of religion that cannot be questioned.

“If I were to question or challenge that, that’s equal to spitting in the face of what our forefathers died for,” she said. “. . . We’re not allowed to look at our forefathers for inspiration before they attained their religious freedom. We’re not allowed to rebel like they did.”

No freedom to harm

The AHF intends to address issues among the Amish of education, female-driven entrepreneurship and healing from trauma. It will also facilitate access to social services for both Amish who have left the church community and who have not.

Bontrager said there is no easy answer to the tension between the rights of children to access education that enables them to make critical decisions later in life and the rights of parents to raise their children according to their religious values. But the foundation’s conference will try to navigate those questions.

“We cannot have [such] extreme religious freedom that it’s legal to harm another person in the name of religious freedom,” she said. “There has to be that balance. . . . It’s not Christian to let these abuses happen in the name of religious freedom.”

Parental concerns

While sympathetic to people who feel trapped, some take a more cautious approach to pushing for government involvement in religious communities.

For Margaret Schwartz, leaving the Amish was mainly a matter of different understandings of salvation. She and her husband, Elmer, grew up among the Old Order Amish in Berne, Ind., but did not describe themselves as “born-again believers” until after they were married. They moved to Holmes County, Ohio, to join the New Order Amish but later left to seek believers baptism.

They now reside in Shipshewana, Ind., and attend a non­denominational church.

Schwartz said lack of education among the Amish was indeed a concern.

“I can see both sides,” she said. “I can see parents having a concern for their children’s education, because there are unbiblical things being taught [in public schools].”

She chose to home-school her children and complied with the relevant laws in her state. But she saw some Amish families pulling their children out of school at sixth grade, saying they would home-school them but then not give them a comparable education at home.

“I always enjoyed learning, and I wanted to go on to school,” she said. “Today, I would have been a doctor. Because I was an Amish girl, that opportunity was denied.”

Schwartz said not every Amish community is the same, and some are becoming more open to education. But she knew of some abuses that gave her concern.

“I wish there would be some way that the government could step in and protect these children,” she said. “The more conservative the area, the more these hidden things [persist]. The ugliness goes on behind closed doors. And it is ugly.”

She said there was no freedom of religion inside the Amish religion.

“They will fight to keep their heritage, but then they will just as strongly fight to keep you in that heritage,” she said. “You had better not leave that heritage, and when you’re on that end of it, it’s pretty rough.”

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