Amish v. State

John W. Whitehead March/April 2003
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For more than 300 years the Amish, also referred to in this country as the Old Order Amish or "Plain People," have practiced a way of life that revolves around their deeply held religious beliefs. Believing in a literal interpretation of the Bible, these intensely private individuals point to Romans 12:2, "Be not conformed to this world," as one of the bedrock Bible verses for their lifestyle and attitude of separation from the world. It is a lifestyle that rejects most of the trappings that come along with modern living. Dressed in plain (some might say old-fashioned) clothing, the men wear broad-brimmed black hats and plain-cut trousers, and the women wear bonnets and ankle-length dresses—they reject all that might get in the way of practicing their faith.

Despite their tendency to stay to themselves and adopt an attitude of nonresistance and pacifism, however, these Plain People have not been strangers to conflict, persecution, or oppression. In Europe the Amish opposition to the union of church and state and infant baptism made them highly unpopular. Some early Amish martyrs were even put in sacks and thrown into rivers in Europe as punishment for their beliefs. Their presence in the United States is largely a result of their escape from religious persecution in Europe. In fact, they were saved from extinction by William Penn, who granted them a haven from religious persecution in America.

Unfortunately, exercising their religious beliefs in the United States has not been without its own trials and tribulations, as recent legal struggles between state officials and the Amish have shown. We hear so much these days from our politicians and other government leaders that tolerance and diversity are essential to freedom and democracy. However, in Gladwin County, Michigan, tolerance and diversity are not being applied to the Amish. As one county health officer said: "We can't treat different segments of the population differently. We can't discriminate."

Thus, in an effort not to "discriminate," the Central Michigan Health Department had 65-year-old Amish bishop Daniel Mast arrested and criminally charged with violating a health department ordinance. It turns out that Mast's crime was one of household plumbing or, more specifically, the lack thereof.

This farmer, along with many in his Gladwin County Amish community, refused to comply with a health department order to install a complex septic and sewage disposal system in his home to prevent runoff from household dishwater. In order to stay out of jail, Mast was even forced to post bail. Four other Amish farmers were also criminally charged with violating the ordinance, made to appear in criminal court, and forced to plead guilty in return for the criminal charges being dropped.

After all this, the farmers still tried to reason with health officials. The Amish lifestyle is so simple that it doesn't even include indoor plumbing, aside from kitchen sink wastewater that flows into a tile-lined septic system in their yards. This wastewater comes from organic soap that the Amish make themselves, and, in dry places like Arizona, is used to water gardens.

To install a complex and expensive septic system, which would obviously require electricity to run, was both improbable and unnecessary. After all, the Amish, who are generally opposed to the conveniences of modern living, do not use automobiles, telephones, or electricity and avoid commercial chemicals, gasoline, and chlorofluorocarbons. The Amish opposition to such devices and chemicals makes a profound statement, in that all of them pollute the environment.

After insisting that the department's wastewater disposal system is tailored to a non-Amish lifestyle, six of the Old Order Amish farmers proposed an alternative simple system of wastewater removal. This system would allow them to remove wastewater safely and effectively while still adhering to their Amish religious beliefs and practices.

An independent hydro geologist who was called in to investigate the farmers' proposal agreed that the system met, and even exceeded, all requirements of the health department's sanitary code. Nevertheless, the health department's board refused to accommodate the beliefs of the Amish. And the Rutherford Institute stepped into the fray, because what is really being contested is not so much the state of their plumbing as it is their religious freedom and the Amish way of life.

In today's society, emphasis is placed on the individual and his or her ability to achieve personal success and fulfillment. However, in the Amish culture all emphasis is on a community that protects its members. This, in part, helps explain why the Amish do not exhibit the angst and anxiety that haunt society at large.

Typically thought of as a law-abiding group of individuals who live by a strict set of rules, the Amish are known for a devout adherence to their religious beliefs, a single-minded commitment to a simple, nonmodern lifestyle, and defenseless nonresistance. One thing they are not known for is breaking the law. Yet owing to the fact that the Amish culture is based on concepts that are in direct contrast with the ideals of modern American culture, clashes have inevitably evolved between the Amish and state officials over their lifestyle.

For example, in the early 1970s the Amish, after confrontations in various states, were charged with breaking the law because they do not send their children to school beyond the eighth grade. Failure to send children to school past the eighth grade is not usually a permitted or acceptable practice. The initial objection against high school attendance stems from the Amish religious beliefs on social boundaries. First Corinthians 3:19 is an often-quoted passage: "The wisdom of this world is foolishness with God." Besides, the Amish society is itself a school. They train their young people vocationally—how to be homemakers, farmers, carpenters, and tradespersons from very early ages. By the time an Amish girl is 12 years old, for example, she knows how to cook a meal for a whole crew of Amish workers, and a young man knows farm operations by the time he is a teenager.

The Amish, therefore, have practically no unemployment, since their society is a vocational school. The Amish operate one-room parochial schools and are taught by teachers with only an eighth-grade education. However, the teachers have learned how to teach with on-the-job training by an older and experienced Amish teacher.
The Amish educational method obviously works. When tested with standardized tests by the U.S. Office of Education, Amish pupils usually perform above the norms when compared to public school pupils in their communities. The students, therefore, are not educationally deprived.

Furthermore, it is difficult, if not impossible, for a non-Amish teacher to teach the values of humility, quietness, and shunning of technological things such as automobiles, television, video games, movies, and the latest fashions. Thus, according to the National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom, the Old Order Amish oppose higher education because it violates their morals and religious convictions and takes their children away from the simple ways of the Amish. But it took a United States Supreme Court case to finally settle the matter in 1972. In Wisconsin v. Yoder the Court ruled in favor of the Amish, saying that states could not constitutionally force the Amish to send their children to public schools.

Since then, however, Amish communities have continued to be targeted by government officials on issues ranging from child labor regulations to not posting license plates on their buggies to refusing to accept Social Security benefits or contribute to the Social Security system—all seemingly in an attempt to force the Amish into a lifestyle abhorrent to their beliefs.

Now these devout people are once again being forced to justify their way of life to government officials who assert that their regulations should override religious beliefs that are fundamental to the very existence of the Amish.

To most Americans who are consumed with modern amenities and who subscribe to the philosophy that you need to avoid confrontation, a dispute over plumbing may not seem like a worthy battle. But it says a lot about this group of simple-living, nonresistant, peace-loving people that they are willing to challenge authority rather than act in a manner that contradicts their religious beliefs and way of life.

The First Amendment to our Constitution was written to ensure that those who were out of the mainstream would be protected. As James Madison argued, the First Amendment was created to protect the minority against the majority. Thus, whether we agree with the way the Amish live their lives, it is their constitutional—and they would say sacred—right to determine this for themselves.

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of the Rutherford Institute, in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Article Author: John W. Whitehead

John W. Whitehead, founder and president of the Rutherford Foundation, writes from Charlottesville, Virginia.