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American Safety Laws Test Amish Tradition

On November 18th, 2011, an Amish teenager in the farmlands of south-central Kentucky died after an SUV accidentally struck his horse-drawn buggy from behind. The buggy did not have an orange reflective safety triangle, which is mandated by Kentucky state law for any slow moving vehicle.

While it is unclear why the boy did not affix a safety triangle to his buggy, members of an Amish sect in western Kentucky have been vocal about their reasons for not using safety triangles. In Graves County, Kentucky just eight weeks before this, local police arrested and briefly jailed eight men -- members of an Amish sect known as the Old Order Swartzentruber -- for not paying court-imposed fines that were issued when they refused to affix orange reflective safety triangles to their buggies. Jacob Gingerich, one of the arrested Amish men, said in response, "if we would go ahead and pay the fine, we would be working against our own religious beliefs."

Members of the Old Order Swartzentruber believe that God has the will to protect them on roadways, and that they should never put their trust in a manmade object instead of God. In addition, members of this sect believe that the bright, orange color of the triangles directly violates their strict modesty code banning vivid colors.

Recently, on January 12, 2012, nine more members of the sect were jailed for refusing to pay similar fines. The repeated jailing of Amish men from the Old Order Swartzentruber has prompted the Kentucky legislature to rethink their safety law and its application in the Amish community.

This dispute over the use of safety reflective triangles has reignited a debate between law enforcement officers and the Amish that has played out in several previous court cases: does the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment allow the Amish to be exempt from laws that violate their religious beliefs, or should they be forced to abide by the laws like other citizens in their state?

Several other states, such as Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan, have sided with the religious freedom argument put forward by lawyers representing Amish that have appealed the laws mandating orange safety triangles. Ohio, New York, and Pennsylvania allow Amish buggies to use silver, reflective tape instead of orange triangles.

Kentucky is now on its way to allowing similar exemptions. On February 7, 2012, the Kentucky Senate unanimously passed a bill that allowed the Amish to use reflective tape on their buggies instead of reflective triangles. The members of the Old Order Swartzentruber in Kentucky are happy with this compromise, as they believe that reflective tape is less flashy than the reflective triangles.

However, the Amish men from this sect that had been previously jailed have not been exonerated, so on March 15, 2012, William Sharp, a lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), is taking their case to the Kentucky Supreme Court to argue for the charges to be dropped. Sharp’s brief to the Supreme Court says that use of the orange triangles would encroach upon his clients' "spiritual relationship with God because it is contrary to the Bible's admonition to shun those things that are 'of the world.'"

Sharp and Gingerich have both argued that if the Amish men from this sect were to comply with the state's safety law, they would risk being shunned by their religious community.

This is not the first time that members of Amish sects have been represented in court to appeal state laws that violate their religious beliefs. In December of 1971, in Wisconsin v. Yoder, representatives for Amish parents in Wisconsin were successful in their appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that mandatory attendance laws in their state -- that forced them to send their children to high school -- violated their religious freedom.

The U.S. Supreme Court sided with the Amish representatives and the Free Exercise Clause, ruling "compulsory formal education requirement after the eighth grade would gravely endanger if not destroy the free exercise of their religious beliefs."

If the outcome of William Sharp's case in the Kentucky Supreme Court is similar to the 1971 ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court, then the prosecuted Amish men in the Old Order Swartzentruber in Kentucky will be allowed to remain safe on the roadways while abiding by their religious beliefs.

To hear Amish members discuss their personal views on the government's influence on their religious practices, tune in to The Amish, premiering on PBS on February 28th.


Anna Bick is a student at Tufts University and an intern for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.

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