When did Freedom of Religion morph into thinking that religion concerns trump the laws of the land and society in which you live?
I live in the Midwest, of which there are numerous enclaves of Amish. In Southeast Minnesota, one such enclave in Fillmore County has decided that basic laws governing sanitation and the disposal of so-called gray water sewage don’t apply to them because God told them it doesn’t.
According to the Rochester Post-Bulletin, the Swartzentruber Amish community in Fillmore County has been in an almost constant legal battle with county officials and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency over gray water treatment systems in their homes. Unlike raw sewage, gray water is the water used for cooking, bathing, laundry and other tasks that don’t involve the toilet.
According to county ordinances, large Amish homes are required to have a sewage system to treat raw sewage and gray water. The Post-Bulletin article also states the county has bent over backward, giving Amish families extra time to adopt the rules, and providing extra exemptions regular residents don’t get.
But that isn’t good enough for the Swartzentruber, who according to Amish America.com is a very conservative sect of the Amish community that eschews some of the most basic technology and thumbs their noses at laws such as the requirement to post triangle warning signs on their buggies. According to the website, the Harmony Amish community was founded by immigrants leaving Wayne County, Ohio, in 1974 and is home to more than 1,000 Amish.
Instead, they argue that their religion requires them to use their traditional methods of discharging dirty water, including a “straight-pipe” system that discharges gray water directly into the ground. They argue they do this to honor their parents traditions and cite Romans 12: 2 which states, “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”
Following the law and using modern technology is against their religion, so they have refused to upgrade their homes, which can have as many as 10 or more people living under one roof. There are also environmental concerns about the runoff from these homes in the 1,000-person community running into streams, lakes and rivers.
Using your religion to stick it to the man has become more popular as the federal government and several states, mostly southern, have passed so-called Religious Freedom Restoration laws. Some of the uses of the law are more innocuous, such as the ruling that Native American drug counselors could not be fired for ingesting peyote as part of their religion, but there have been very serious applications such as court rulings that exempt Catholic Church organizations from employer mandates that require birth control coverage be offered to their employees (regardless of the employees own personal religious beliefs) and the more famous Hobby Lobby decision of the Supreme Court.
The Post-Bulletin had a good takedown of the argument the Amish men have used in court (Amish women summoned to court have refused to show, also according to their religion). Tradition and religion are not compelling arguments, the editorial said, and also cited some Bible verses of its own, including Matthew 20:21 “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
But setting the Bible aside, we’d say the Fillmore County officials have been more than patient with the Amish community in this matter. For more than a decade, the county has nudged, pleaded and cajoled families to comply, and while some have complied, those who have refused have not been evicted.
Now I don’t think the bible should be used as an authority in any legal sense for any reason. These people chose to live in America, in Fillmore County and should have to respect the laws or vote them out. Allowing these exemptions allow parents to abuse their kids by refusing medical care, prohibiting the use of vaccinations, and in this case threatening the health of the Amish community and their neighbors, which the Post-Bulletin also eloquently states:
Speaking of lines, if you know Fillmore County, you know Amish farms aren’t limited to one large, well-bordered area. They’re scattered across the landscape, intermingled with properties occupied by non-Amish families — families who have the right to clean well water and, if they’re lucky enough to have a stream, to have it free of untreated household wastewater.
Ultimately, the right to practice one’s religion is not limitless; it generally ends at the point where those beliefs come into conflict with another’s rights and/or the health and well-being of a community. The state has ruled that minimal standards of wastewater treatment are necessary to protect water quality across the state, and they apply to everyone.
America was founded as a secular nation and should be kept so. When your religion contradicts the laws of society, the laws of society should win. We don’t condone corporal punishment on religious grounds, we wouldn’t allow someone to stone a disobedient child or a prostitute, so why do we let these other things slide?