Iowa high court overturns Mennonite’s steel-wheel citation

Sunday, February 5, 2012

DES MOINES, Iowa — The religious rights of a Mennonite teenager have prevailed over a northeast Iowa county’s concern about protecting its roads in an Iowa Supreme Court ruling.

On Feb. 3, the court reversed a Mitchell County citation against Matthew Zimmerman, who was cited for driving a steel-wheel tractor on a county road in 2010. He was found guilty of violating an ordinance banning steel wheels on hard-surfaced roads.

A district court judge upheld the citation, but the Supreme Court ordered the case dismissed. The high court said in Mitchell County v. Zimmerman that the ordinance as applied to church members violates the First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion.

Members of the Mennonite order in Mitchell County are forbidden from driving tractors unless their wheels have steel cleats, but the county prohibited driving such vehicles on highways in a 2009 ordinance in an effort to protect the roads from excessive wear.

The high court had to decide whether the ordinance violated the religious rights of the church members under the U.S. or Iowa Constitutions.

Church members testified that farm tractors must be refitted with steel wheels to maintain small-scale farming and a close-knit community. If a church member drove a tractor that did not have steel wheels, he or she would be barred from the church. The steel-wheel rule helps ensure that tractors are not used for pleasure purposes and thereby displace the horse and buggy.

The county passed the ordinance when it observed cracks and damage to resurfaced roads it believed were caused by the steel wheels.

A district court judge ruled at trial that the ordinance treated everyone equally regardless of religious belief and that the county had a compelling interest in protecting the integrity of its roads.

The Supreme Court agreed that the Mitchell County ordinance is neutral in the way it was written and wasn’t intended to persecute members of a particular religion.

The high court found, however, that the ordinance prohibits only a particular source of harm to the roads — the steel wheels used by Mennonites. School buses, for example, are allowed to use ice grips and tire studs year around.

On the argument that the county had a compelling interest to prohibit the steel tires, the court found that it had allowed steel lugs for many years before 2009. In addition, the county could not quantify the impact of steel wheels on the roads, acknowledging in testimony that various factors lead to deterioration.

The high court said the county could draft a more narrowly focused alternative that would allow steel wheels on county roads in some circumstances, while establishing an effective mechanism for recouping the costs of any necessary road repairs if damage occurs. The court pointed out that the adjoining Howard County reached an agreement with the Mennonite community to accept a financial deposit in a trust arrangement to cover possible road damage, in lieu of banning steel wheels.

The high court concluded that the county’s goal of road preservation can be accomplished less restrictively without banning the tractors used by the Mennonites.

“We therefore hold that the application of the Mitchell County road protection ordinance to Matthew Zimmerman violates his rights of free exercise of religion under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,” the court wrote.

As a result the high court said it did not need to determine whether the Iowa Constitution was violated.

Zimmerman’s attorney did not respond to a call seeking comment in time for this story.

Mitchell County Attorney Mark Walk declined to comment.

County Supervisor Joel Voaklander says that while it’s difficult to put a figure on how much damage the steel wheels cause, it’s easy to see the impact.

“Take a hammer and go out to your driveway and hit it a few times and see what it looks like,” he said. “You’ve got an 18,000-pound tractor, what do you think it does?”

The supervisors are expected to discuss the ruling and what to do next at a meeting on Feb. 7.

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