A district judge in Cambria County, Pennsylvania, sent a conservative Amish man to jail for refusing to compromise with officials over the outhouses he provides at a school on his property. Judge Norman Krumenacker last week found Andy Schwartzentruber in contempt of court for failing to bring the outhouses into compliance with regulations that govern their size, construction details, and ways of handling the waste that accumulates in them.
The judge sentenced Mr. Schwartzentruber to 90 days in jail plus an additional $1,000 fine for the contempt of court charge, which is in addition to the $1,600 he already owes for ignoring earlier convictions about his failure to obtain proper sewage permits and his ignoring state and county regulations. The judge also decided to have the school and the two outhouses padlocked, with warnings posted that threaten trespass charges if anyone uses them. The judge cited concerns for the health of the general community as the reason for his actions.
According to the report in the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, the dozen Amish people present in the court during the hearing appeared to be stunned by the judge’s rulings, despite his warning over a month ago about the consequences of ignoring his orders. According to an adult daughter of the prisoner, Mr. Schwartzentruber has 16 children, three of whom are still in school. His wife Frances wept openly as her husband was taken away from the courtroom.
He continued to maintain that he would rather go to jail than compromise his religious beliefs. “I stand by my religion. If I don’t, (it) could destroy the whole church group,” he said. He was locked up in an isolation cell in the county prison.
An elder in the community, Sam Yoder, told the press he was not sure what the group would do about providing an education for their children. He wondered to the newspaper how the county sheriffs had the authority to go onto private property and physically close the school. In any case, he maintained the Amish had made some improvements to their outhouses next to the school, and while they would be willing to post permit fees, they would not submit a sewage treatment plan nor allow soil testing on the ground.
Judge Krumenacker denied the assertion of Mr. Schwartzentruber that it was a religious controversy. “The bottom line of this whole case is the balancing of society’s needs for protecting the health, safety and welfare of its citizens and the balancing of reasonable (requirements) around your sect’s beliefs,” he argued. The judge said that he had tried to reach a compromise with the Amish man, and at one point it seemed as if one might be reached. “However, we couldn’t put the last couple of details together,” he said.
Before he was led away to prison, Mr. Schwartzentruber asked if he could avoid having his hair cut, be allowed to wear his own clothes, and have no TV or electricity. The prison warden responded that he would not be required to wear the bright orange jump suit that most prisoners wear, but would be given a dark blue one instead. It appeared as if the prisoner would not have to have his hair cut.
Education officials, obviously alerted to the fact that the judge had ordered the school to be closed, decided to add to the tense situation. A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Education indicated that the school district takes responsibility for educating children. She added that the state allows education to take place in charter schools, private schools, or in homes.
Thomas Estep, the Superintendent of Schools for the Northern Cambria School District, said that he had turned to the school solicitor, Gary Jubas, for advice. He obviously takes quite seriously his responsibilities for the education of the Amish children, now locked out of their schoolhouse. “We’d have to have the names of the children, and I don’t think they’ll voluntarily turn them over. But they have to comply with the state’s compulsory education laws, or they’ll be in court over this. We can’t turn a blind eye to it,” he said.
A follow-up story in the Tribune-Democrat includes a picture of two beefy Deputy Sheriffs attaching padlocks to the schoolhouse door the next day. They also padlocked the two offending outhouses so no one could use them. Apparently, they encountered several students and a teacher in the school when they arrived. The older deputy explained he was just doing his job and asked them to leave, which they did. There had been 18 students enrolled in the school.
According to the follow-up story, the warden of the county prison said that Mr. Schwartzentruber appears to be adjusting to life in jail. He was issued dark blue garb, which he is wearing, but he is in a cell with standard, bright lighting. Education officials told the press that the Amish will have to arrange for their children to be educated, either in a private school, in their homes, or at the local public schools. The threatening statements made by Mr. Estep the day before were absent from this report.
Officials in Lancaster County, who are far more experienced in dealing with conservative religious people, have learned to find compromises with laws and regulations, as have leaders of the Amish groups. A journal article by Kidder and Hostetler (1990) describes many instances where creative bureaucrats have found ways to bend their interpretations of regulations so that the Amish can conform, though sometimes just barely, to modern regulations.
It is evident from the way this story has developed that neither the Schwartzentruber Amish in Cambria County, which is over 100 miles west of Lancaster County, nor the local officials, have learned how to find compromises as effectively. The Kidder and Hostetler article, as well as Donald Kraybill’s Riddle of Amish Culture, which discusses similar issues, should be required reading in Cambria County.