The Associated Press released a story last Saturday describing the religious opposition to local building codes among some conservative Amish families in New York State and Wisconsin.
The AP writer was obviously unaware of the sewer and building code violations that have roiled some Schwartzentruber Amish families in Cambria County, Pennsylvania, in recent months but the issues are quite similar. As the AP story relates, many Amish feel that regulations requiring them to follow architectural plans, install smoke detectors, and abide by onsite inspections all force the intrusive, outside, mainstream society down their throats. That violates one of their basic religious beliefs of avoiding contacts with the materialistic society surrounding them. They feel that their own beliefs do not hurt outsiders.
It may be hard for non-Amish to understand their objections, since almost everyone else erecting a building in America has to abide by the intrusiveness of the modern, inspection-laden, building-code system. But freedom of religion is a cornerstone of America, so the Amish have many supporters outside the ranks of municipal bureaucrats, local attorneys, and adjoining property owners.
The AP story describes some of the 18 legal actions conservative Amish residents in Wisconsin and New York State have faced over the past year and a half due to people building homes without following local building permit requirements. One of the Wisconsin residents cited in the story, Daniel Borntreger, may have to pay a fine of thousands of dollars for building his home without a proper permit. He feels the permitting process is too intrusive. “The permit itself might not be so bad, but to change your lifestyle to have to get one, that’s against our convictions,” he told the AP.
The article makes some important points, though it unfortunately simplifies the situation. It cites the enlightened approaches taken in Pennsylvania, where authorities are quite familiar with Amish beliefs due to the fact that they have lived there so long. In a township in Lancaster County, they are allowed to have exemptions from requirements such as one that insists lumber in their homes must be properly graded, or another that stipulates that electricity be properly installed—regulations that they couldn’t abide by. Officials are willing to work with the Amish, who are generally cooperative on their part.
“You try to work with both sides,” said one township official. “(We tell them) this is what we need you to do so everyone can go home and relax.”
The article goes a bit astray by suggesting that the problem occurs when Amish move into new states, such as New York and Wisconsin. In fact, the Amish have been residents of both states for years. Instead, conflicts occur when the Amish move into new areas where they do not know about local regulations they will be facing, and neither local officials nor attorneys understand them or their religious beliefs. As mentioned, Amish who are more recent residents of some Pennsylvania counties have had problems when local people do not really understand them. Research has suggested that people who have more extensive contacts with the Amish also have more positive attitudes toward them than people with less frequent contacts.
The Amish have their defenders, people who feel that their strongly-held religious beliefs should trump local regulations. Steve Ballan, a public defender assigned to help the Amish in an upstate New York building code case, said the Amish “should be allowed to practice their religion and their religious traditions without interference from the government,” a view that some local officials may have a hard time accepting.
But law professor Douglas Laycock at the University of Michigan feels the Amish will have a strong case if the issue is taken to federal court. Contrary to the arguments of local officials, that the regulations are designed to protect people from having their buildings fall down, Laycock says that Amish buildings are not collapsing. “People aren’t getting hurt,” he told the AP.