Did you know that in the US, some religious parents have the right to deny basic education to their children?
As Torah Bontrager wrote yesterday in the New York Daily News, many educated Americans are “not aware that the highest court in the country had set a precedent in favor of extremist religion over my basic rights. Over and over, I’ve seen how the system regularly protects religious sects as they harm children — from a failure to educate them to a failure to physically protect them.”
Torah’s opinion piece struck me powerfully
She was a raised in an Amish community near where I live in Michigan. She had to, in her own words, “escape” at the age of 15 in order to pursue a high school education and enjoy even the simplest human self determination. Startlingly, she had to buck the law in order to be free.
Her story reminds me so much of the obstacles many LGBTQ youth face as they struggle to enjoy basic human rights and dignity.
I roasted a goose yesterday and prepared a festive meal with all the trimmings. I wasn’t celebrating anything special; I live among the Amish and often buy poultry from them. Their free-range, antibiotic-free birds are incredibly tasty. Driving by a neighbor’s farm the other day, I got an urge to eat goose, so I pulled up a long gravel driveway, knocked on the door, and arranged to have one cleaned and plucked.
The Supreme Court would have sealed her fate: “becoming an ignorant Amish housewife.”
I know this Amish family casually. An incredibly kind and friendly couple in their 60s preside over a clan that fills two large white farm houses. They grow corn, raise chickens, ducks, geese, cattle, and gorgeous quarter horses. The farm is immaculately clean and well maintained, the picture of rural efficiency and charm.
I buy my eggs from them, so I’m around often enough to have gotten to know them a little. Like all Amish families, this one features scores of children. Literally. The small ones walk to a little one-room schoolhouse nearby, and the teenagers work the farm all day with their parents. Read that again:
The teenagers work the farm all day
Amish kids don’t go to high school. They attend their own community schools through the 8th grade, learning basic skills like arithmetic and reading Biblical High German, English, and their own native Germanic dialect. They study no science, little history, and almost nothing about the world around them. Their schools are exempt from Michigan education standards because of a 1972 US Supreme Court case called Wisconsin vs. Yoder, which found that state compulsory school laws are an unconstitutional infringement on religious liberty.
People ask me about the Amish a lot
People often ask me what it’s like to live surrounded by the Amish. I find that most questioners tend to romanticize them. And for good reason! Lots of Amish people seem very happy with their way of life, healthy and cheerful. They live without electricity for the most part, with 19th-century technology. Many of them look quite content to run farms, marry, and raise big families.
But the Amish are people, not romantic ideals, and like all people they come in many varieties.
See the boy in the photo just above?
He’s about 15, out of school already, and intensely curious about the world. He’s fascinated by my cell phone and my mountain bike. When he’s 18, he can choose to leave his faith and family to “go out in the world.” Joining the Church isn’t obligatory. But if he does, he’ll have less education than a typical American 13-year-old, no skills beyond 100-year-old farming skills, and no contacts or networks to establish himself in life.
Freedom of religion and freedom of speech allow people to believe and say what they want in this country. But I know from firsthand experience that religiously driven myths reinforced by leaders can harm children’s lives and thwart their potential. — Torah Bontrager
By denying him an education, the State of Michigan and the US Supreme Court have essentially decided his future for him. He has no meaningful freedom of choice, and no way to strive for any potential other than to be an Amish farmer. Freedom of religion has stripped him of his basic human rights.
It is the future of the students, not the future of the parents, that is imperiled by today’s decision. If a parent keeps his child out of school beyond the grade school, then the child will be forever barred from entry into the new and amazing world of diversity that we have today. The child may decide that that is the preferred course, or he may rebel. It is the student’s judgment, not his parents’, that is essential if we are to give full meaning to what we have said about the Bill of Rights and of the right of students to be masters of their own destiny. If he is harnessed to the Amish way of life by those in authority over him and if his education is truncated, his entire life may be stunted and deformed. The child, therefore, should be given an opportunity to be heard before the State gives the exemption which we honor today.
Torah Bontrager states her case more bluntly
She says that when she “escaped my community in Michigan in the middle of the night at age 15,” she had an education that was almost nonexistent, lacking any knowledge that ran “contrary to Amish religious views.” While she aggressively pursued a high school equivalency degree and eventually won admission to Columbia University, she laments that if she had not found the strength to escape and educate herself, the Supreme Court would have sealed her fate: “becoming an ignorant Amish housewife.”
LGBTQ issues come into sharp focus here
Amish children (or children raised in any other religious families) are as likely to be born with minority sexual orientations or gender identities as any child. Yet the Amish faith dictates that families and communities reject LGBTQ adolescents. Children are faced with either keeping their identities secret or being exiled from their faith and from their homes. Those who choose to leave at 18 face the dilemma of having no education or skills useful in the outside world.
One gay Amish teen’s story
The Internet site LGBT Amish is full of personal accounts of Amish people who’ve had to struggle with minority identities. Teenager A. Troyer was kicked out of his community and ended up homeless, like many other Amish youth posting on the site. This is his story in his own words.
I am from Millersburg, Ohio. I had no idea that there were others like myself. I was asked to leave my community. My sister discovered I was gay after finding a magazine called OUT in my room. My parents, family, and people non Amish who knew me want nothing to do with me. I moved an hour and 20 minutes north to Cleveland. I slept a few weeks on the streets. I lived in a homeless shelter for a long time! I asked myself what have I done and why would a God I love give me this? A nice man took me in, I am going to school and have a PT job. It is difficult with a lack of education. I too considered suicide! I visit Millersburg and go past my home from time to time i’ve not actually seen my parents except from the road. I want them to know me! I miss them and my siblings dearly! It’s nice to know though I am not alone!
LGBTAmish.com facilitates a conversation within Amish communities about LGBT issues, a conversation which cannot be…
Depriving a child of an education is child abuse
Troyer’s story is typical of LGBTQ Amish youth. Deprived of education, they lack the skills they need to maneuver the world and fight to reach their full potential.
Religion faith must not justify harming children. Religion must not give parents the right to deprive their children of the education that every other child in the nation is entitled to.
As Torah Bontrager put it in the Daily News, “Freedom of religion and freedom of speech allow people to believe and say what they want in this country. But I know from firsthand experience that religiously driven myths reinforced by leaders can harm children’s lives and thwart their potential.”
Ms. Bontrager and Justice Douglas are right, of course. Adults have the undisputed right to choose their own paths in life. But children must be afforded the opportunity to reach for whatever dreams they wish to pursue. Depriving a child of a basic education is abuse, because as the Justice noted, lack of education forever deprives the child of the right to be the master of their own destiny.
Parallels with conversion therapy
I write often about LGBTQ conversion therapy and how ineffective and dangerous it is, associated with very high rates of youth suicide. The Roman Catholic Church, Evangelicals, and the LDS Church are fighting for the right, on religious liberty grounds, to offer conversion therapy to LGBTQ teenagers, frequently claiming “religious liberty” exceptions to state-level bans.
Conversion therapy is child abuse. It doesn’t work, and it causes severe harm. Again, all question of liberty aside, religion musts not excuse harming children.
Every kid must have a right to education and self determination
No child should have their potential stunted or their mental health compromised because of their parents’ religion. Every child must enjoy the basic human right of self determination.
My Amish neighbor featured in the photo above may decide one day that he’s happy running a farm. If so, more power to him. His parents are lovely people and their way of life is admirable. But what if he wants to be an engineer or an architect instead? What if the artistic life is calling him? Maybe he wants to sculpt or compose music.
Maybe he’s gay or transgender and doesn’t dare pursue a fulfilling life.
That’s what I thought about as I ate my delicious roast goose yesterday. Religious liberty isn’t truly liberty if it cripples children and deprives them of choices in life.
Real liberty enables choice and fulfills potential. Real liberty means education and freedom to be whoever we want to be.
James Finn is a long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Act Up NYC, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.