Citing religious beliefs, Amish balk at Pa. outhouse regulations

Thursday, May 29, 2008

EBENSBURG, Pa. — Members of a small, isolated Amish community are refusing to follow state code in their handling of waste from a school's two outhouses, citing their religious convictions.

The Amish property owner says he is even willing to go to jail to defend his beliefs.

Local officials aren't eager to go to that extreme, but are in a quandary over how to assure that the laws are applied uniformly and that the raw sewage doesn't contaminate water supplies.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported yesterday that a Cambria County judge ordered the two Amish men back in court over their refusal to comply with sewage laws.

Waste from the outhouses has been collected in plastic buckets, then dumped onto fields. The county is demanding the Amish install a holding tank and contract with a certified sewage hauler for disposal. County officials also say the property owner and school elder don’t have permits for the privies.

District Judge Michael Zungali last month found Andy Swartzentruber, on whose land the outhouses sit, and school elder Sam Yoder in violation of state sewage-disposal law. They had until May 27 to pay more than $500 each in fines or to appeal the ruling. Zungali’s office said the deadline passed without the men paying fines or appealing. Swartzentruber has said he's willing to go to jail, while the judge has said he might consider community service instead.

The men have been ordered to appear at a “payment determination” hearing on June 12.

“I'd rather go to jail, and abide by our religion,” Swartzentruber told the Associated Press one recent afternoon while taking a break from tilling a field.

Local officials said before this week’s deadline that putting the men in jail wouldn't solve anything.

“That's a huge sacrifice. I believe in their sincerity,” said William Barbin, attorney for the Cambria County Sewage Enforcement Agency. “But I still have to find a way to solve the problem.”

Swartzentruber and Yoder represented themselves last month in court, where Yoder also said he would not pay the fine or appeal, county officials said. Because the Amish do not have phones in their homes, Yoder could not be reached for comment.

The men are members of the Swartzentruber Amish, one of the Christian sect's most conservative groups. Their only Pennsylvania settlement is the one here, about 70 miles east of Pittsburgh.

Home to 30 families, the Swartzentrubers relocated from Ohio about a decade ago, a relatively recent community compared with the much larger and more well-known Amish population in south-central Pennsylvania.

The Swartzentrubers number only about 8,000, or fewer than 5% of the roughly 220,000 Amish in the United States, according to Donald Kraybill, an Amish expert at Elizabethtown College. More than half of their settlements are in Ohio.

While all Amish shun the modern world, the Swartzentrubers are known for their more austere restrictions on technology, more severe limits to interaction with the outside world and more rigid notions of the separation of church and state, Kraybill said.

Yoder and five other Amish men laid out their beliefs in a handwritten letter to the sewage agency in January.

“We feel this sewage plan enforcement along with its standards is against our religious (beliefs),” they wrote. “Our forefathers and the church are conscientiously opposed to install the sewage method accordingly to the world's standards.”

Other than the sewage issue, local officials say relations with the Swartzentrubers have generally gone well, other than the occasional citation for not having warning markers, like orange triangles, on their horse-drawn buggies.

Permit disputes with the Amish are most common in areas where they are relative newcomers, but usually get resolved, said Herman Bontrager, an insurance company executive from Lancaster County who is a member of the National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom.

“The position of not wanting to abide by code and cooperate with legal authority, that's a pretty rare position,” he said. “Most Amish find ways to do that.”

Among the Amish, church guidelines can be interpreted differently from congregation to congregation — and how disputes are resolved can also differ greatly from community to community, Kraybill said.

“There's a lot of different outcomes — sometimes accommodations on both sides, sometimes someone goes to prison,” he said.

Kraybill said he was unaware of any similar dispute over sewage disposal in Ohio. In Morristown, N.Y., the Swartzentrubers are involved in a court fight over state building codes.

Andy Swartzentruber's troubles began in October 2006 when residents complained anonymously that the schoolhouse and outhouses were erected on his property without permits. Residents said they worried about potential water contamination.

An inspection found plastic buckets collecting waste in the outhouses, and Swartzentruber told sewage officials the waste was disposed of by being dumped onto his fields, according to sewage agency documents.

County officials say they want to work something out with the Amish. If the Amish choose, they can propose building their own holding tank, as long as it can be shown to meet construction standards.

“People respect their religious beliefs,” township supervisor Giles Dumm said. “Nobody's coming down on them about that.”

But, he said, “It's not fair to the rest of the community if some people have to abide by the sewage laws and some don't.”

Agency, state and township officials have met with Swartzentruber and other local Amish at least seven times since October to discuss permit requirements.

If the stalemate continues, county officials said, another option may be seeking an injunction to prohibit use of the school or the outhouses.

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