Unionville High School
Kennet Square, Pennsylvania
The Amish in American History
Lancaster County is a small area in Pennsylvania filled with farmland and rolling hills. It is a quiet area, the kind of place that brags about its greatest attraction being an antique train ride. It is also my home. It’s the home of another group too, a group that is as quiet and humble as the area they live in, the Amish. The Amish don’t have the fame and notoriety in American history that many other religious groups have. They never took part in any great debates that have divided the nation nor have they fought in any American conflicts, a point they’d be proud of if they didn’t praise humbleness above all else. However, the story of the Amish in America is not one of peace and stability; it is a story of struggle. The Amish community has labored during its time in America to practice its faith and has stoically soldiered on in the face of a government and society that does not understand their deeply held beliefs.
New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, is the host town of one my home state’s most populous Amish communities with 1,500 Old Order Amish calling it their home. It is also the site of a defining moment in Amish history, a moment when they successfully argued to the nation that they should not be forced to go against their religious beliefs and pay into Social Security –an insurance program that they feel takes away from the importance of their local community bonds. After Congress expanded Social Security to include benefits for farm operators, a number of Amish workers found themselves having to pay into a program that they never intended on using. One of these Amish men was Valentine Byler, and he had no intention of paying a tax he believed to be truly sinful. After skipping out on four years of taxation, the IRS attempted to take his amount owed directly from his bank account. Since Mr. Byler was Amish, he did not have a bank account; so instead, the IRS arrived at his farm and confiscated and auctioned off three of his six horses while he was plowing the fields with them. As these horses were necessary for Mr. Byler to continue with the spring harvest, he brought his story to the national media to put pressure on the IRS and Congress to pay him compensation for his commandeered horses. After newspapers all across the country picked up the story and the nation came to support the plight of this poor Amish farmer, Congress was pressured to enact a legislative solution to the problem, and in 1965 when Title XVIII of the Social Security Act was authorized, Congress included a section allowing conscientious objectors to opt out of paying into Social Security so long as their beliefs are deeply held and have been in place before December 31, 1950, winning freedom for the Amish and many other communities for years to come.
Unfortunately for the Amish community, their struggle has not always been as mundane as one over tax law. The Amish have played an important but hapless roll in the development of our conscientious objector laws in regards to the draft. During World War I, the United States had a set of conscientious objector laws; however, these were nowhere near as strict as they are today, to the dismay of the Amish men forced to fight during World War I. Even though the Amish religion is pacifist in nature, its young adherents were forced to put on uniform, drill with the regulars, and were even sent to France. They were not technically required to fight, but unofficially the government hoped that the Amish would be peer pressured into fighting anyway. While some did succumb to the peer pressure and take up arms, the majority continued to resist the temptation, but was subjected to physical and emotional abuse by their comrades for being “German sympathizers.” Following the Great War, the government realized they couldn’t have these types of scandals on their hands and implemented improved conscientious objector laws that allowed the Amish to grant their labor for domestic projects in exchange for not having to serve. This was later improved during the Vietnam War when the Amish were allowed to continue their lives uninterrupted during war time, finally obtaining the freedom they deserved from the beginning.
The Amish, being non-aggressive by nature, rarely engage in court battles. There is an exception to every rule however, which is why in 1972 the case Wisconsin v. Yoder was brought before the Supreme Court. Jonas Yoder was the Amish man who represented three families in the case, all of which had been previously convicted for pulling their children out of school before the minimum age of 16. The Amish engage in this practice as they believe that formal education beyond eighth grade leads children to disobey their church teachings, and consequently they pull all of their children out of school and teach them a skilled trade like carpentry or bring them out to work as a farm hand instead. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Yoder and the families he represented, with the majority opinion, written by Justice Warren Burger, stating that the values instilled in children during high school are “in sharp conflict with the fundamental mode of life mandated by the Amish religion,” granting a religious exemption to minimum age laws when a party can demonstrate closely held religious beliefs. The Court based its ruling on the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, saying that requiring Amish children to attend public school beyond age 14 infringed upon the parent’s and children’s right to freely exercise their religious beliefs as guaranteed by the Constitution.
The Amish community has led a simple life in America. Not every aspect of their time in this country has been easy –fighting a war one doesn’t believe in is about as hard as it gets– but the Amish struggle has helped shaped our interpretation of the First Amendment. With minimum school age, draft laws, and Social Security, the Amish have helped expand religious freedom to their own church and to other minority religious groups through the court and press battles they have fought. The struggle of the Amish in America is a case study all should explore.
Kraybill, Donald B., and Mark Olshan. The Amish Struggle with Modernity. Hanover, NH: U of New England, 1994. Print.
“Strasburg Rail Road™ | Pennsylvania Dutch Country | Lancaster, PA.” PA Dutch Country. Lancaster County. Web. 13 Nov. 2014. http://www.padutchcountry.com/members/strasburg_rail_road.asp
Igou, Brad. “Valentine Byler vs. the IRS “Pay Unto Caesar – The Amish & Social Security”” Amish News. Amish Country News. Web. 19 Nov. 2014. http://www.amishnews.com/amisharticles/amishss.htm
“Amish History Is A Story Of Struggle And Faith.” Amish History. Exploring Amish Country. Web. 19 Nov. 2014. http://www.exploring-amish-country.com/amish-history.html
“WISCONSIN v. YODER.” Wisconsin v. Yoder. Oyez. Web. 20 Nov. 2014. http://www.oyez.org/cases/1970-1979/1971/1971_70_110#sort=ideology