Jimmy May / Bloomsburg Press Enterprise / AP

Increasing tension over some Amish beliefs as communities grow

Amish are mired in lawsuits in several states over refusal to adhere to some laws, such as having smoke detectors

AUBURN, Kentucky — In this rural outpost near the border with Tennessee, Amish women park their horse-drawn buggies at the edge of town and walk in dragging wooden wagons behind them, returning with goods stacked high. Some avoid town altogether. They fear ending up like Amos Mast and Dan Mast, an Amish father and son who face the possibility of jail for refusing to pay fines for not attaching a bag behind their horse to catch manure. The Masts say the bags spook the horses and that paying the town’s fines would set an unwelcome precedent.

“I used to have a lot of Amish customers, but I haven’t had an Amish customer in the past three to four months. They used to come in every day. I don’t know how many dollars’ worth of belts I bought just for them that are now just sitting there. They power everything with gasoline engines, and they need belts for them to run,” said Glen Sears, the owner of Glen’s Hardware. He said many Amish now go to the town of Franklin, 13 miles away, for supplies.

Soon they may not even be going there. Most of the Amish around Auburn, according to Margie Reed, a friend and neighbor to many of the local Amish, are preparing to pack up and move to Pennsylvania, which has historically been very accommodating to the Amish.

Auburn, Kentucky is one of many towns where locals appear to be increasingly clashing with the Amish over traditional practices. Diane Umble, the dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, has studied Amish culture extensively. She attributes many of these conflicts to the combination of a growing Amish population and a small group of Amish who are resistant to compromising on their traditions and balk at government rules.

“Traditional Amish groups are establishing communities in new areas where there is not an ongoing dialogue and there may not be local knowledge of the cultural values and religion of Old Order groups. Often these conflicts occur where there has not been much interaction over the years,” she said, adding that most of the issues can be worked out through compromise and education.

With a historically high birthrate for the Amish and less and less available farmland, these issues will continue to grow, Umble said, as they keep moving to new areas. Most estimates say the Amish population in the USA doubles every generation. So with currently about 200,000 church members, more and more rural space is needed to accommodate the groups.

The Masts belong to a very conservative sect of the Amish. They do not use telephones and have very little interaction with outsiders. They are scheduled to appear in district court on July 9 for a hearing over their failure to pay fines associated with the original citation issued in January. The Masts contested that citation, and a jury found them guilty in April. Members of the Mast family have since been cited additional times for failing to use horse manure bags. Town officials and the Masts met at a farm over the weekend to try to work out a compromise.

Rural Kentucky isn’t the only place where long-held Amish cultural customs and beliefs are butting up against local ordinances.

Outside Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Amish have been balking at a crackdown by local authorities on buildings not meeting local requirements for smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. State officials overruled local authorities and put an exemption for the Amish in 2015’s state budget. Once this legislation is signed, Amos Borntreger and Vera Borntreger, who refused to install the equipment, are expected to have their $42,000 in fines and court costs dismissed.

In New York, municipalities have also been battling the Amish over building code violations, including a lack of smoke alarms, and proposed legislation could require Amish to display orange safety triangles on their buggies.

In Pennsylvania, Amish miners are being required to wear hard hats despite legislation passed in 1972 exempting Amish construction workers from Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules requiring hard hats, because mines are governed by a different entity. Five Amish workers at a quarry in Pennsylvania had to be reassigned to other areas of the operation that don’t require going underground, after the Labor Department in June ordered Russell Stone Products to move the Amish workers to other jobs, under threat of shutting the business down. Owner Dan Russell reportedly does not plan to challenge the ruling.

In Fillmore County, Minnesota, home to the state’s largest Amish settlement, local authorities have been battling the Amish over sewage disposal and other building permit requirements. Ammon Swartzentruber and Sarah Swartzentruber have been charged with three misdemeanors for failure to comply with modern septic tank installation and failure to obtain a building permit, which they say would violate their beliefs.

The case of the Swartzentrubers v. Minnesota and whether requiring a septic system violates the state’s religious freedom laws is under review in the attorney general’s office.

And in Minnesota, Mitchell County supervisors have been battling conservative Mennonites over an issue that was debated in the Iowa Supreme Court in 2012. County officials claimed the Mennonite’s steel-wheel tractors damaged country roads. The Iowa Supreme Court sided with the Mennonites in overturning the conviction, but this year Mitchell County supervisors are threatening jail and fines to the Mennonites for not filing the necessary religious exemption paperwork.

Umble emphasized that most Amish groups comply with ordinances. “In many Amish communities it is not an issue to have orange triangles, and in many communities they are not fighting local legislative safety issues. Many places, they are cooperating. But there are certain ultraconservative groups that feel they cannot accept any of that kind of government influence on their day-to-day lives. But these cases are not representative of all Amish and come up with the most conservative groups,” she said.

She said the key, though, isn’t necessarily to throw the book at recalcitrant Amish in these growing number of cases.

“I do sometimes think the solution varies from local community to local community and comes down to building relationships. Sometimes it is a matter of education … but I also think it is a matter of finding some kind of accommodation and compromise,” she said.

Umble said the Amish have a very practical streak and can often be persuaded. “They have a history of accommodation and change when it has been for the economic survival of the community,” she said.

The Rev. William Lindholm, the head of the National Steering Committee for Amish Religious Freedom, said he sees the increasing number of legal battles involving the Amish as a revocation of Pennsylvania founder William Penn’s promise to the community.

The Amish were told by William Penn that if they came here, they would not be killed, drowned in rivers or have their rights infringed upon. I think we ought to keep our promise,” Lindholm said. His group defended the Amish in the landmark 1972 Supreme Court case Yoder v. Wisconsin, which paved the way for Amish religious exemptions from the higher grades of formal education. The ruling also strengthened the home-school movement in the U.S., he said.

He said that while the Amish are generally averse to litigation, they will often go along if they see some greater good involved.

“When I took Wisconsin v. Yoder, I went there and said, ‘I’d like to defend you. Look at it this way — I believe you’d be of help to many people if you’d allow us to use your case to make a ruling.’ It used to be illegal to home-school. That Amish case has helped thousands of people who are not Amish. That is the only way I was able to persuade the Amish to take their case,” he said.

Lindholm said that it was more work to persuade the Amish to take on the case than it was get the Supreme Court on board.

“And I thought that would end it, these church-state battles with the Amish, and yet here we are with fighting in Wisconsin a few miles from where the Supreme Court took Yoder v. Wisconsin,” he said.

In upstate New York, a spate of accidents between cars and buggies resulted in the St. Lawrence County legislature proposing legislation to require buggies to affix orange triangles on their buggies — which some Amish oppose. Still, in the interest of safety, lawmakers and Amish gathered in a bishop’s barn at night to shine a car’s headlights on the back of a buggy to see which kinds of reflective tape worked best.

“Some of the Amish that were using the tape hadn’t replaced it in a while, so it wasn’t as reflective as it should have been … One type of tape was very reflective and great, but only if the light was straight on. It wouldn’t help in curvy or hilly situations,” said Stephen Ballan, the interim public defender for St. Lawrence County, who has acted as an advocate for many Amish in the area. For the moment, the legislation has been tabled while the Amish and lawmakers try to work something out.

He said that the Amish are not being scofflaws and that they truly are hewing to their faith.

“I very strongly believe that they are deeply held religious beliefs. As you look around at the different Amish communities, look what happens when they are forced into situations they are opposed to. They pack up and leave. Doesn’t that say something?” Ballan said.

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