A new panel discussion series explores the stories of the people behind landmark cases

As an eighth grader in a Long Island suburb in the 1950s, Daniel Roth didn’t want to recite a prayer with the rest of his class in public school. Growing up on a farm in Wisconsin in the 1960s, Vernon Yutzy saw no reason to protest when his parents followed Amish religious tradition and refused to send him to public school after eighth grade. Roth’s and Yutzy’s experiences as children led to two landmark First Amendment cases: Engel v. Vitale, in which the US Supreme Court found school-sponsored prayer in public schools to be unconstitutional, and Wisconsin v. Yoder, in which the Court held that a state school attendance law violated the Amish community’s freedom of religion.

Life of the Law Event photo
Jonathan Engel (left) and Daniel Roth

On November 28, Roth, Yutzy, and Jonathan Engel, a son of the name plaintiff in Engel, joined in a panel discussion at NYU Law to talk about how these cases affected their lives. The evening was the inaugural event of a new series of conversations called Life in the Law, moderated by journalist Joshua Prager and focusing on the human beings behind influential precedents. Prager is the author of The Family Roe, a biographical portrait of Roe v. Wade plaintiff Norma McCorvey.

The Engel suit began, Daniel Roth said, when he told his parents that he didn’t want to join in the prayer said in his school. Together with several other parents in their district, the Roths filed suit to challenge the practice. “It wasn’t because I had some burning conviction about the separation of church and state.… I just didn’t want to say [the prayer] because I didn’t have any connection to it,” Roth said. American Civil Liberties Union attorney William Butler ’49 argued the case in the Supreme Court on behalf of the families.

Roth and Engel—who had grown up next door—both recalled a tidal wave of criticism and threats directed at their families following the Court’s 1962 decision in Engel: hate mail, menacing telephone calls, picketers outside their homes, and a cross burned in the front yard.

“It was difficult,” Roth said, adding, “I don’t know that I would want to put my children through what I went through, [even] for the sake of what I believe is a very important cornerstone of the country that we live in.”

Life of the Law Event photo
Joshua Prager (left) and Vernon Yutzy

Vernon Yutzy’s parents were among several Amish families in Wisconsin who were prosecuted for not sending their children to high school. In 1972, in a suit challenging their conviction, the Court decided in the parents’ favor—but Justice William Douglas dissented regarding Yutzy and a second Amish child, because neither had testified about their religious beliefs. Douglas argued that the Court’s analysis should take into account a child’s religious freedom and ambitions for the future. “If [a child] 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,” Douglas wrote.

For his part, Yutzy said he had been glad to leave school, where he and other Amish children were bullied, and to work on his parents’ farm instead. “I was tired of school books and school crap and all the ridicule and stuff from the kids,” he said. But when Yutzy left the Amish community as an adult, his lack of a high school diploma restricted him to a series of low-paying jobs.

“I worked in the steel mills for 95 cents an hour,” he said. “That was pretty rough. Shoveling sand and pouring hot coals, hot iron.” Eventually finding steady work as a carpenter, Yutzy never earned more than $14 per hour.

Despite many hard times, Yutzy said, he still took pride in the case and its result. “I’ve…been told that we should obey God rather than man, so God was the rule in that case, so I believe it was the right thing to do,” he said.

Posted February 6, 2023