The latest chapter in a drama that made the national news in June played out in a Cambria County, Pennsylvania, courtroom last Thursday when a District Judge upheld a lower court’s findings against an Amish man. Andy Schwartzentruber, owner of land on which an Amish school is located, continues to defy official county sewage disposal orders regarding the human waste in outhouses next to the school. At Thursday’s hearing, District Judge Norman Krumenacker fined him $1,000 for violating the sewage ordinances, and ordered him to comply with the disposal regulations within 30 days.
The problem for the Amish began when some neighbors complained to the county about the school privy. They told officials that they were concerned with the safety of their well water because the Amish were cleaning the outhouse and spreading the waste by hand on Mr. Schwartzentruber’s fields. The county sided with the neighbors and ordered the Amish to follow county regulations. They must have the outhouses cleaned by licensed individuals who would follow approved treatment and disposal procedures.
When the county took action against the Amish for continuing to violate the regulations, six of them responded in January with a letter to the sewage enforcement agency. “We feel this sewage plan enforcement along with its standards is against our religious (beliefs),” they wrote. “Our forefathers and the church are conscientiously opposed to install[ing] the sewage method [according] to the world’s standards.”
In June, the local District Magistrate found both Mr. Schwartzentruber and his co-defendant, Sam Yoder, guilty of ignoring county sewage standards and his own orders by their continuing refusal to comply with the regulations of the sewer enforcement office. He fined both men and ordered them to serve 90 days in jail. The men, with the support of a sympathetic attorney, James Stratton, appealed to the County District Court, which heard the case on Thursday.
Mr. Yoder, the only Amish man to testify, told the court that members of his church had inquired about a permit, but they had not followed the instructions because they were concerned about various aspects of the permitting process. He did say that they had installed a 250 gallon tank enclosed in concrete and built two new outhouses for the school.
Judge Krumenacker concluded, however, “these rules exist to protect all people. The discharge and improper handling of human waste has led to huge disease and pollution issues over the centuries.” He added, “the problem is that the rules of disposal of human waste are there to protect all of us.” He also said that the Amish had not shown how the county’s permitting process had harmed their religious beliefs. “There is no evidence before the court that the permitting processes are unreasonable.”
The judge vacated the lower court’s ruling against Mr. Yoder, since Mr. Schwartzentruber was the owner of the land where the school and offending outhouses are located. (Schwartzentruber’s son now owns the property.) He also vacated the jail sentences against both men But he did indicate that Mr. Schwartzentruber must pay a fine of $1,000 for violating the laws and he must bring the outhouses into compliance with county regulations within 30 days or face further fines.
Mr. Schwartzentruber’s only comment after the hearing was that he would not pay any fines.
William Barbin, the solicitor for the county sewer enforcement agency and prosecutor in the case, indicated he was satisfied with the judge’s rulings. His office will mail out the proper permit applications to the Amish group, but he maintains that they must install the required 1,000 gallon septic tank. The one they installed themselves is not adequate. The Amish will also have to make arrangements for proper disposal of the wastes as they accumulate before the sewer office can issue permits.
“They have options,” Mr. Barbin said. “They could get bigger tanks and have it pumped out by contract or get a land application permit, mix the waste with lime and [follow] treatment measures.”
He emphasized that the county is quite willing to compromise with the Amish. “Are we willing to try to accommodate their sincere withheld [sic] religious beliefs? Absolutely. If they show why some rules should be treated differently because of their beliefs, we will always consider it,” he said. But, he added, “it is unfair to impose issues that you claim to be from your religion with people who don’t share that religion.” Furthermore, defending the idea of handing down a sentence against Mr. Schwartzentruber, Mr. Barbin asked, “how do we obtain compliance if a penalty is not imposed?”
James Stratton, the attorney for the Amish men, was not sure how they would respond to the judge’s orders. He said that they would certainly talk about the matter.
This controversial story has provoked a lot of media coverage in Pennsylvania. Local television crews, of course, respected the rules of the courthouse by not trying to film anything in the courtroom, but a similar sense of consideration did not deter one of the stations from filming several dozen Amish people after the hearing. They are shown in the glare of the television lights coming down the courthouse stairs, the men holding their straw hats over their faces.
“That was disgusting,” commented an offended neighbor of this writer on Friday morning after she saw the scene on the Altoona TV station. “Everyone knows the Amish don’t like to be photographed. They certainly showed no consideration for them.” Apparently the majority American society can demand respect for its laws and regulations, but television personnel do not have to reciprocate any sensitivity toward Amish values.