Iowa Amish challenge state law requiring reflectors on buggies

Wednesday, September 30, 1998

Citing religious beliefs, members of an Amish community refuse to obey an Iowa law that requires them to place orange reflectors on their buggies.

On Oct. 7, a Decatur County judge is scheduled to decide if the state law requiring reflectors on slow-moving vehicles trumps the religious liberty rights of the Amish. If the judge finds that the Amish must obey the state law, members could face jail time if they don’t comply.

Decatur County Attorney Carol Clark said the law applies to everyone for safety reasons and that the Amish should not be exempted from the law.

“There have been no crashes yet,” Clark said. “But there have been several close calls. People are afraid that someone is going to get killed.”

The Amish, however, note that a tenet of their faith requires its adherents to remain separate and apart from the modern world. That concept is based on Christian biblical directions to “be not conformed to this world.” Based on that concept of separation, the Amish travel primarily by horse and buggy.

The conflict between the Amish faith and safety laws is not new, or unique to Iowa.

In 1988, an Amish group in Minnesota challenged a state ordinance very similar to Iowa’s that mandated criminal penalties for anyone who failed to attach orange reflectors to slow-moving vehicles. The Amish said the law infringed upon their right to freely exercise their religious beliefs protected by the First Amendment and the Minnesota Constitution.

The Amish case eventually wound up in the Minnesota Supreme Court after being sent back to the state by the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court remanded the case to the Minnesota court with instructions to determine whether its 1990 ruling in Employment Div. v. Smith applied to the Minnesota case.

The Supreme Court in Smith ruled that generally applicable laws or government actions that incidentally infringe on religious beliefs or practices do not amount to a violation of religious-liberty rights. If the Minnesota court had applied the legal reasoning of Smith, many religious-liberty advocates maintained that the Amish would have had to comply with the state law.

Minnesota’s high court, however, refused to use Smith in determining whether the state law violated the religious-liberty rights of the Amish. Instead the state high court ruled that the “Minnesota Constitution alone provides an independent and adequate state constitutional basis on which to decide,” the case.

The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in Minnesota v. Hershberger, that the state constitution provided “greater protection for religious liberties against governmental action under the state constitution than under the first amendment of the federal constitution.” In doing so, the court ruled that Minnesota would have to come up with “an alternative to a statutory requirement that burdens freedom of conscience, in this case the SMV symbol [orange reflector].”

The court continued that the state “has failed to demonstrate that the use of reflective tape and a lighted red lantern proposed by the Amish is an insufficient warning to other drivers of a slow-moving buggy.”