Free Exercise

By definition, a claim for exemption based on free exercise can only be used, if at all, by those who have home instruction for religious reasons. The only U. S. Supreme Court case that has ever decided any case involving home teaching is Wisconsin v. Yoder. Decided in 1972, it involved a group of Amish who challenged the compulsory attendance laws of their state. For three centuries, the members of this religious sect taught their children at home in accordance with their religious belief that education in a public school would violate the tenets of their faith. The Amish pointed out this home education gave their children the skills to function effectively in a society that was isolated from the general public.

Unlike the decisions in Meyer v. Pierce, and Farrington v. Tokshige the Amish in Yoder did not rely upon due process grounds, but on the belief that compulsory attendance laws of Wisconsin violated the Free Exercise clause of the U. S. Constitution prohibiting interference by the government with practices found to be religious and not just personal pref-erences. The Court balanced the interest of the state in educating children against the right of the Amish to practice their religious beliefs and concluded the state of Wisconsin had failed to show the state interest of educating its citizens in what is clearly the society of the general public outweighed the interest of the Amish in not having governmental interference with their religious practices.

In weighing and balancing the interests of these opposing parties, the Court sharply limited the use of Yoder to persons engaged in home schooling for future cases. The Court noted the three-century tradition of home education and that its content did enable Amish children to be able to function as adults in their separate society. Therefore, the state interest present in this case was rendered irrelevant by the Amish isolation from the general society. Through the use of this balancing test and its limited application of the Free Exercise clause to an unusual religious group, the court could affirm the interest of the state in educating its citizens, allowing the compulsory attendance laws to stand. In fact, lower federal court cases subsequent to Yoder have decided against other religious groups that instruct their children at home because they lacked the isolation of the Amish from modern life.

With this decision, a principle was established giving in theory greater protection to those who gave home instruction for religious reasons. However, the requirement that the belief of the party claiming Free Exercise protection was religious, and not one of personal preference or philosophy, and that the compulsory attendance law would severely impact such a belief would in practice be difficult to satisfy. The weight of cases subsequent to Yoder indicates it is far easier for the state to show the regulation fulfills a compelling or merely legitimate interest.

Only two state supreme court cases decided after Yoder involving home schooling parents using the Free Exercise clause resulted in a successful conclusion for them. Those states are Michigan in Michigan v. DeJonge, decided in 1993, and North Carolina in Delconte v. State of North Carolina, rendered in 1985.


Inside Free Exercise