Two men from the ultraconservative Schwartzentruber Amish sect each face 90 days in jail for not cleaning their outhouses according to Pennsylvania state law. Andy Schwartzentruber, a 52 year old man and the owner of property in rural Cambria County in west-central Pennsylvania, and Sam Yoder, 53, an elder of a school on the property, are both refusing the orders of a district magistrate who seeks to enforce the state sewage ordinances.
In a case that has made the national news, including USA Today and Fox News, the two Amish men maintain that the requirements of the state for proper disposal of waste from the outhouses on the grounds of their school violate their religious beliefs. The Schwartzentruber group, one of the most conservative of all the Amish sects, strictly adheres to old-time ways of doing things and completely rejects the rules of mainstream society. They have argued to county officials that their church has always rejected modern sewage systems.
They have told the judge, Michael Zungali, who is enforcing the laws at the behest of the county sewage agency, that they will not pay the $1,151 fine that he has assessed against them, and they furthermore refuse to perform any form of community service in lieu of the fines. Paying the fines or performing the community service would violate their religion, they maintain.
The Cambria County Sewage Enforcement Agency claims that the men empty the outhouses by taking the sewage in buckets and distributing it, illegally, by hand on their fields. The agency demands that the waste be held in an approved storage tank, and then disposed of by a certified sewage hauler. It has sought the support of the courts in the dispute, since it has been unable to work out a solution with the Amish men.
A lawyer representing the sewage agency suggested it has three options for pursuing its case against the two men. It can file additional criminal charges; it can seek an injunction to prevent the Amish people from using the school and its adjoining outhouses; or, it could assess civil fines which, if unpaid, could result in a lien against the property and a sheriff’s sale, if it came to that. The attorney accepts the sincerity of the Amish men, but he insists that a solution needs to be found to the problem.
Last Thursday, June 12, Magistrate Zungali held a hearing with the Amish men to determine whether they would pay the fine he has levied or accept a form of community service. About 10 other Amish people appeared in the courtroom to witness their soft-spoken responses to the judges questions. Mr. Yoder indicated that they wanted to settle the affair, but he told the judge that “it was against our church council to live with the outside world.”
The judge offered to let them work off their fine at a county-owned park near their homes in Barr Township, western Cambria County, or to do road work for the municipality. The men refused those options, which, they felt, violated their religious convictions. The county park was built for pleasure, so they couldn’t be involved. It was not clear why they would not work on the roads. Mr. Schwartzentruber emphasized that the sewage laws violate their religion, which is why they refuse to cooperate. The judge indicated that he had no other option but to sentence the two men to report on July 21 to the county jail for a 90 day sentence, unless by then they have filed an appeal.
Both men appeared to be upset at the prospect of serving 90 days in jail. But their religion forbids them from hiring a lawyer or filing an appeal themselves. However, a friend from Westmoreland County in western Pennsylvania, Oliver Smith, offered to pay for an attorney to represent them. If they agree, the friend said he will hire the assistant county public defender, who has already been involved in the case, to represent the defendants and file their appeal. The attorney, James Stratton, has agreed—if Schwartzentruber and Yoder are willing.
The sewage agency also appears to be trying to work out a compromise with the men, and it maintains it wants to avoid sending them to jail. “Cambria County Sewage Enforcement Agency is sorry that they would not avail themselves of community service,” Deborah Sedlmeyer, the agency’s executive director, told the Associated Press in an e-mail.
A fascinating journal article by Kidder and Hostetler (1990) analyses the legal problems of cases quite similar to this, when the Amish are taken into court for violating laws and regulations that they strongly oppose. The authors contend that the Amish never contest charges and hire lawyers, though friends sometimes employ attorneys to go along, just to make sure the courts act fairly.
The two scholars cite numerous examples of major problems being solved by supporters of the Amish who are expert in the laws and are resourceful in helping find compromises with government agencies. These outsiders have been adroit at talking to officials and finding creative legal loopholes for compromises to be reached in issues such as social security requirements, school attendance laws, milk collection ordinances, and the like.
For instance, in Pennsylvania, legalistic creativity and effective networking produced solutions to state requirements that the teachers in Amish one-room schoolhouses had to be certified. The Amish got around the regulation by declaring that all their teachers were substitutes, and thus were exempt from the regulations. In another case, the state was threatening to shut down a new Amish school since it had a wood-burning stove in the school room rather than in a basement with approved fire walls. After much negotiation, the state backed down and ordered their inspectors to keep away from the Amish schools.
Kidder and Hostetler argue that rural Amish people have little concern or interest in the pressures, counter pressures, and maneuvering carried out on their behalf by advocates. They believe in nonresistance and, if necessary, migration to avoid problems. They see the activity of their supporters as “working things out,” being helpful in resolving problems, and liberating officials from their constant need to obey rules. Whether Oliver Smith or Attorney Stratton will be able to work things out for the Schwartzentruber Amish in Cambria County remains to be seen.