Religious liberty of Amish group trumps law on slow-moving vehicles, says judge

Thursday, October 15, 1998

An Iowa judge has ruled in favor of an Amish man who refused to follow a state law and place an orange reflector on his buggy.

In August, Menno Byler, a member of a small Amish group in Davis City, was ticketed by an Iowa state patrol officer for driving his horse and buggy without a state-required slow-moving vehicle reflector. Other members of Byler's group have also refused to place the orange reflectors on their buggies, citing a tenet of their faith that requires them to remain separate from the modern world.

Decatur County Judge Robert A. Rolfe ruled late last week that the First Amendment protected the Amish from complying with the state law.

“The question to be decided by this court is whether the freedom of religion claim of the defendant is of such constitutional magnitude that it overrides the clear requirements of the statute in question,” Rolfe wrote in a four-page opinion. “The court has also to determine whether the claim of the defendant is seriously based on a religious belief and whether it imposes a burden on the practice of his religion.”

Carol Clark, the county attorney, argued that the state law, which is targeted toward vehicles traveling less than 30 mph, was supported by a compelling governmental interest in public safety.

Rolfe, however, ruled that Byler's objection to the state law was based on “a sincere religious belief” and that the law did burden “the free exercise of his religion.”

Rolfe said the state's interest in the law was not great enough to trump the Amish man's fundamental right to practice his religion freely.

“If the non-use of the sign is critical to safety, why have there been no accidents involving the Amish buggies in this county?” Rolfe asked.

Finding less than a compelling government interest in the law, Rolfe said the First Amendment rights of the Amish must be protected.

“The general public may not ever understand why the old order Amish object to the use of the [slow-moving vehicle] sign on religious grounds,” Rolfe wrote. “However, the right of 'free exercise of religion' has been and should continue to be one of the most fundamental beliefs of American citizens. It is found in the First Amendment to the Constitution. While it would be hard to specifically define religious freedom, it means this: some members of our society have the right to believe and practice beliefs that may be peculiar to other members of society.”

Rolfe concluded that “as to this defendant, and those similarly situated in his group, the old order Amish,” the law “violates their free exercise of religion.”

Clark said that she had not decided whether she would appeal the judge's decision.

“I feel that the law enforcement officers have done what is required by them under the Iowa law and as a duty to public safety,” she said. “I also believe that my office has done the same thing for the public's safety, and when there is an accident – and there will be one – any blame should not be pointed toward us.”

Clark added that the Iowa law does not target religious people and that the Amish should try to come up with an alternative device that both satisfies their religious concerns and the state's interest in public safety.