The Kentucky Human Rights Commission is considering a case that pits civil rights law against the beliefs of the Amish that discipline in their community must be maintained through shunning, if necessary.

Two years ago, Ruth Irene Garrett, who had left the Amish Church earlier and been shunned by its members as a result, tried to buy some goods in a store in Cub Run, Kentucky, owned by Erma Troyer, an Amish widow. Garrett has written a couple books about the Amish, including the best-selling Crossing Over: One Woman’s Escape from Amish Life.

map of Amish in KentuckyAccording to Associated Press reports carried on November 6 by the Chicago Sun-Times, the Washington Post, and other papers, Ms. Troyer told Ms. Garrett that she was unable to take her money for the goods she wanted to purchase because of the shunning order. A confrontation ensued and Ms. Garrett decided to complain to the state Human Rights Commission that her civil rights had been violated. An officer for the Commission heard the case last month, and a recommendation is expected in several months.

Other than the fact that there was a confrontation, the versions of what happened differ. Ms. Garrett claims that the shopkeeper seemed to enjoy putting her in an awkward position by repeatedly refusing to sell her the goods she wanted to buy. “She just openly embarrassed me,” Garrett said about Troyer. “It was so humiliating, and that really was almost depressing.”

Although she left the Amish faith, Garrett, 31, still likes to shop in Amish stores for ingredients and cooking items that help her to cook in the tradition she was raised in. “It’s my heritage,” she indicates. “It’s the way I was brought up—canning and cooking and making things from scratch. It’s the best way you can go.”

For her part, Troyer states, “personally, I don’t feel like I did anything wrong.” Before he died, her husband built the store for her so she could raise their six children without being dependent on others. A 41-year-old widow now, she has six children ages 6 to 16. Her store has both non-Amish and Amish customers.

Garrett claims that other Amish shopkeepers have taken her aside, when they recognize her, and speak quietly with her in their German dialect to explain that they can’t sell her anything. She says she has always accepted those rebuffs without filing discrimination claims, but the incident at Troyer’s Rocky Top Salvage store, located in an Amish settlement in south-central Kentucky about 90 miles south of Louisville, changed her mind.

Troyer had read Crossing Over and recognized Garrett from a photo on the book jacket. When Garrett admitted that she was, indeed, the author of the book, Troyer refused to ring up the purchases, though she says she attempted to deal with the matter quietly. She says she offered to let Garret take her purchases without paying for them. She just couldn’t take her money, since that would violate the shunning order from her church.

Troyer explained to the Human Rights Commission that if she were to take money from someone who had been banned, she would have to report her violation in her church, and, if she violated the ban repeatedly, she would be subject to excommunication herself. She told the Commission, “I don’t want to feel responsible for doing something wrong, if it can be avoided, from having my soul turned into hell.” Troyer claims that Garrett must have known when she left the church that the Amish would shun her for the rest of her life.

An attorney for the state Human Rights Commission, Emily Riggs Hartlage, said the actions by Troyer violated the state’s Civil Rights Act by denying service in a public place for religious purposes. The attorney uncovered other instances of Amish stores refusing service to those who had been shunned.

Garrett indicates that she hopes the Commission will end the practice of shunning in Amish stores. Troyer’s attorney responds that the storekeepers cannot violate the shunning order without putting their religions and even their stores in jeopardy.

Scholars explain that the threat of shunning is an important way for the Amish to maintain their communities. According to Hostetler (1993), the Amish maintain the purity of their faith through shunning, a form of ostracism. The church will warn, and then shun, people who refuse to repent of practices that the community condemns. Other church members, including members of the individual’s own family, must not speak or interact with shunned people or even eat with them lest they be shunned too.

Kraybill (1989) provides details about the social control techniques of the Amish. When gossip reaches the leaders of the district that members have violated the rules—such as using forbidden technologies, filing law suits, or attending dances—the deacon and a minister may visit the homes of the offenders. If the offenders are properly penitent and the offenses are minor, the officials drop the matters. If the offenses are more serious and more public, the deviants may be asked to confess in front of the congregation.

The most severe level of punishment may involve a six-week trial ban. Individuals come to church but leave afterwards, and everyone shuns them during this period. If the foretaste of excommunication works and the members change their ways, the church may allow them to make kneeling confessions and rejoin the group. The healing that accompanies the confession process has the effect of uniting the congregation. But if the trial period does not prompt the individuals to correct their behaviors, then full excommunication will follow.

Adding interesting details to this practice, Gruter (1985) relates the story of an Ohio Amish man who, in 1947, willfully violated the rules of his church by buying a second-hand car so he could take a seriously ill daughter for twice-weekly medical treatments. As a result, the church instituted the shunning procedure.

The consequences, as intended, were devastating—the community denied him all of the reciprocal services so important to farm life. The unusual aspect of this case was that the man brought a civil suit in the Ohio Court of Common Pleas against the four church officials responsible for instituting the ban. The jury decided in the man’s favor, awarded him $5,000, and the judge ordered an end to the ostracism. When the defendants, the church officials, did not pay, the county sheriff auctioned their personal property to raise the money. But the court injunction didn’t work: no one in the Amish community resumed dealing with the man.

Gruter concludes that one of the major reasons for the aspect of shunning that threatens church members against dealing with an ostracized person is to prevent the spread of individual decision-making. Such individuality would conflict with their belief in the necessity of submitting to decisions by the group. In the unusual Ohio case, the jury accepted the ideas of individual freedom and the process of making decisions via reason, the essence of a legal system which reflects the values of the dominant society, over the values of group conformity and unreasoning acceptance of God’s ordinances as accepted by the Amish.

It remains to be seen if the Kentucky Human Rights Commission will favor the concepts of civil rights law, as argued by Garrett, or the values of the Amish society, as accepted by Troyer.