Friday, July 27, 2007
In 1947 an interesting case came to trial regarding an Andrew Yoder sued the Bishop and 3 other church leaders of Helmuth District Old Order Amish congregation. Most of the facts of this case are undisputed and a complete story has emerged.
Andrew Yoder's daughter is born very ill and needs regular medical attention. Andrew Yoder is a farmer and lives 15 miles from the clinic. Being Amish Yoder is entitled to rent a car or take a taxi but not to own one. However he decides to put his daughter above his church quits the church and joins a more liberal Mennonite church. He did not however complete a valid transfer.
Church elders confront Yoder and he refuses to provide a full explanation. He is excommunicated and subjected to shunning. As a result of the shunning Yoder suffers severe financial and emotional distress. He goes to court and sues the church to have the ban lifted. The argument is that since he had quit the church he could not be subject to church discipline.
The court has serious questions about its jurisdiction to take the case. However since Yoder lives in an Amish community the ban organized by the church leadership, in the court's opinion, constitutes a conspiracy to defame. That is they found that the shunning was illegal because a conspiracy to boycott the plaintiff actually amounted to a violation of the plaintiff's civil rights of liberty to switch churches at will and without intimidation and coercion. That is while the court can't order any of Yoder's neighbors to talk to him they do believe they can hold the leadership responsible for what amount to attempt to coerce Yoder to remain with a particular church.
The church is found guilty and the leadership is ordered to pay $5000. The bishop refuses to pay his share and his farming equipment is sold at auction by the sheriff, an elder then steps in and pays the balance of the judgment to say his own farm. Yoder's daughter dies, one of the elders dies from the stress and Yoder commits suicide.
Now that the facts are out of the way lets move on to some analysis. In general most people who have studied the Yoder case agree it is highly atypical. You do have a judge essentially arguing that a religious punishment is incorrect. Guinn vs. Church of Christ of Collinsville (where the Judge found that shunning constitutes a religious act) would likely have been the outcome had the defendants defended themselves properly.
However, what is generally agreed drove this case was community disgust at the effects of shunning. That is shunning was for these farmers seen as too effectual. Given the level of effect the community felt that their notions of justice (that is justice as seen by the broader society) were being violated. Interestingly enough they also objected to the sale of the farm equipment for the same reason. What this points to is an issue with that church discipline is likely to face if it capable of having "real bite". It needs broad community support to function or the church not the individual is the one who gets publicly shamed.
Some additional documents