When Religious Liberty Means Child Abuse

Every kid must have a right to education and self determination

James Finn
Oct 20 · 8 min read
Amish boys playing baseball outside their one-room schoolhouse in Lyndonville, New York. Image by Ernest Mettendorf in Wikimedia Commons

Did you know that in the US, some religious parents have the right to deny basic education to their children?

Torah’s opinion piece struck me powerfully

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

My photo of an Amish teen neighbor driving a team of draft horses

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

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?

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.

Justice William O. Douglas, writing in dissent in Wisconsin vs. Yoder, puts it more eloquently than I can:

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

LGBTQ issues come into sharp focus here

One gay Amish teen’s story

​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!

Depriving a child of an education is child abuse

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

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

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 jamesfinnwrites@gmail.com.

James Finn - The Blog

Collected Writings. Stories and ramblings from a long-time LGBTQ thinker and activist.

James Finn

Written by

Writer. Runner. Marine. Airman. Former LGBTQ and HIV activist. Former ActUpNY and Queer Nation. Polyglot. Middle-aged, uppity faggot. jamesfinnwrites@gmail.com

James Finn - The Blog

Collected Writings. Stories and ramblings from a long-time LGBTQ thinker and activist.

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