Increasingly, the Amish are able to resolve conflicts with the mainstream society through negotiation, an approach that often produces very positive outcomes. A recent journal article by Wayne F. Miller describes some of the 1400 different ways the Amish resolve their conflicts—a figure, the author tosses out, which is based on the number of Amish church districts in North America. Each one may approach problems differently.

 The common element among them in settling disputes is that they are nearly as opposed to confrontations in courtrooms as they are to fighting in any other way. They are strongly opposed to hostilities of any kind, so they try to find other ways to handle contentious issues.

The author first describes internal Amish disputes. Members sometimes disagree with their local church rules, issues that, to outsiders, might seem trivial: whether or not individuals can own and use certain technological devices, or whether they may wear particular styles of clothing. Conflicts also arise between individual members, often due to business problems. The Amish affected by disputes among themselves frequently take their issues to church leaders for arbitration. But the author devotes only a few pages to these internal church difficulties. The bulk of his article focuses on the resolution of conflicts with the outside: the mainstream, “English,” society.

Traditionally, the Amish either gave in to government demands, refused to obey and faced the penalties, or moved away. They discovered, in the second half of the 20th century, that negotiation is often the best way to resolve conflicts with outsiders. The practice of negotiating with governments began with the Amish National Steering Committee, a group formed to discuss work programs in lieu of the draft with the director of the U.S. Selective Service.

The success of the Steering Committee established a pattern of Amish willingness to negotiate with government agencies on all levels. Some of their successes have been with the U.S. Federal government. They strongly opposed the American system of social security, refused to accept social security payments, and resisted putting their money into the system. The U.S. Internal Revenue Service would not allow any exemptions from social security, but the Amish leadership successfully lobbied Congress to pass legislation exempting them. At first, Congress only allowed self-employed Amish persons to be exempt, but later it also allowed exemptions for Amish employees working for Amish businesses.

State conflicts with the Amish have also been ameliorated through lobbying and negotiations. Several Amish groups have gotten states to modify their requirements that slow-moving vehicle (SMV) signs must be displayed on the backs of buggies. While most Amish churches accept SMV emblems, some of the very conservative groups refuse to display them: the bright orange signs are too showy and worldly. The state of Ohio and the conservative Andy Weaver Amish negotiated the issue and agreed to substitute clear reflector tape plus a red flashlight as an alternative to the SMV signs. After a tragic accident in New York State involving an unmarked Amish buggy, conservative Amish groups and officials there agreed to a compromise similar to the one in Ohio. But other states have taken the Amish to court over the matter.

The Amish have also opposed requirements by state government agencies regarding compulsory education beyond the 8th grade. They are strongly opposed to having their children attend consolidated schools, since they would have to be bussed far from their homes. That issue was finally resolved when the U.S. Supreme Court sided with some Amish people against the state of Wisconsin—they gained the right to educate their children in the manner they wished. The Amish do, however, abide by state standards in terms of facilities and school terms.

Negotiation is also important at the local level. New York State building codes mandated that bedroom windows on new residences must be at least 5.7 square feet in area—in order to ensure that fire fighters would be able to rescue inhabitants from a burning house. But the traditions of one conservative Amish district in western New York State dictated that the maximum area of windows in Amish bedrooms should be no more than 5 square feet. In this conflict, after some negotiation the town involved sided with the Amish refusal to conform to state regulations. It issued the building permits to them anyway, which put the community at odds with state authorities.

Another local instance the author cites was a Wisconsin town where people started complaining about horse manure on the streets and parking lots frequented by the Amish buggies. As complaints from citizens mounted, the Amish began boycotting businesses, hurting the local economy. But then the two sides initiated negotiations. The Amish agreed to confine their horse and buggy travel to side streets rather than the main roads, and to clean up the hitching areas. The town dropped its proposed ordinance to require diapers on all horses.

The Amish negotiating positions sometimes have adversarial, threatening elements behind them—if they don’t get their own way, they may sell everything and move to another area, or boycott local businesses. But generally they dislike aggressive posturing and threatening. Most of the time they will outline their concerns with government representatives—public safety versus opposition to SMV symbols, for instance —and struggle to find reasonable compromises, such as clear reflecting tape.

The Amish may seem to have a weak power position while bargaining with mainstream economic or political entities, but in fact they have a lot of clout behind them. They receive favorable attention from the media and they enjoy a lot of popular sympathy. Government bodies tend to have respect for them, and since they do attract tourist dollars to communities, people usually do not want to alienate them. In addition to their economic influence, they have benefited from astute leadership in their conflicts with the English. The essential aspect of negotiations between mainstream communities and the Amish is that both sides are usually willing to compromise.

Miller, Wayne F. 2007. “Negotiating with Modernity: Amish Dispute Resolution.” Ohio State Journal on Dispute Resolution 22(2):477-526