Any threat to conscience is a cause for
concern. . . Anabaptists know that the state, no matter how
benevolent, is always ready to force believers to choose between it
Dennis Koehn knows a little bit about the conflict between
religious beliefs and the requirements of government. In 1970, as an
18-year-old Kansas Mennonite, he refused to register for the draft.
He was found guilty and, after his appeal was denied, in 1972 began
an 18-month prison term, most of it spent in a federal facility in
It was the price Koehn was willing to pay for his faith-based
The same year Koehn was incarcerated, the Amish successfully reached
the end of their long, arduous conflict with the state over education.
In the landmark case of Wisconsin v. Yoder, the U.S. Supreme
Court ruled that children could not be forced to go to school beyond
eighth grade. But that came after numerous Amish in several states had
faced fines and even imprisonment for not sending their children to high
Koehn, Wisconsin v. Yoder and other such incidents provide
perspective to the recent wave of accusations that President Obama is
waging war on Christianity because of a birth-control mandate for health
insurance. Some religious groups, especially CathÂolics, have protested
as if these are unprecedented developments.
Any threat to conscience is a cause for concern. The contraception
controversy, however, isn't really new. Anabaptists know that the state,
no matter how benevolent, is always ready to force believers to choose
between it and God.
Anabaptism's annals are filled with such accounts, from martyrs Bolt
Eberli and Dirk WilÂlems in 16th-century Switzerland to political
oppression of the fledgling church in 21st-century Vietnam. But those
types of stories are also abundant in this land of First
Amendment-guaranteed freedom of religion.
By not registering, Koehn carried on a distinguished U.S. Mennonite
tradition that's as old as the nation. During the American Revolution, a
Lancaster County, Pa., gunsmith refused to make muskets for colonial
soldiers. For this offense he was banished from the trade by local
authorities. A number of Pennsylvania Mennonites and Amish were fined,
imprisoned and even temporarily sentenced to death for not pledging
allegiance or for not taking up arms against the British.
The experiences of World War I conscientious objectors are especially
formative. Many conscripts were court martialed for refusing to put on
military uniforms, shoulder guns or otherwise be cogs in the American
war machine. On the home front, Mennonites were the subject of several
investigations because of their peace stance. Federal authorities seized
150 copies of a tract on nonresistance from Mennonite Publishing House
in Scottdale, Pa. Archibald Yoder of Ohio was arrested for allegedly
trying to persuade another person not to enlist. The case was later
Since Koehn, more Mennonites have declined to register with Selective
Service, which has led to several high-profile court cases. Other church
members demonstrate their peace convictions by not paying war taxes,
thus making themselves open to federal repercussions.
While Wisconsin v. Yoder resolved the issue of compulsory
education, it certainly hasn't been the only state attempt to restrict
Amish expressions of faith. They clashed with the federal government
over Social Security for a decade before the matter was settled in 1965.
More recently, the Amish have found themselves at odds with requirements
regarding photo identification, slow-moving-vehicle signs on their
buggies, steel wheels on their tractors, environmental regulations,
zoning ordinances and more.
Mennonites and our spiritual kin are by no means the only ones with
an understanding of pursuing faithfulness when worldly authorities are
trying to prohibit it. Mormons, Native Americans and Muslims, among
others, have had similar experiences in this country and been
marginalized as a result.
It's just that other Christians are apparently now learning what
we've long known.