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The Schwartzentruber Amish in Cambria County, Pennsylvania, have been in the news last week for the same legal issues that have disturbed their community for over a year.

Two families in the sect apparently removed padlocks from their homes and moved back in on November 19th. They openly violated Judge Norman Krumenacker’s order, issued in May, that the two homes must be locked to keep them out. The judge had supported the county sewage authority’s contention that the two families had built new homes without constructing proper outhouses. Since they refused to modify the outhouses—their religious beliefs require them to avoid modern conveniences—the judge had ordered the sheriff to padlock the houses.

When the two families received notices last week that the judge was going to hold a contempt of court hearing against them, they quickly moved out again. The Amish families will be represented by an attorney from Altoona, Thomas Dickey, who has been retained by a national organization that has gotten involved in the case, the National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom. Attorney Dickey has requested the judge to continue the hearing until he has a chance to meet with church elders and see if he can work out a settlement to the sewage issues. The judge and the attorney for the sewage district, William Barbin, agreed to the delay.

Judge Krumenacker has tried to find compromises without success, and other attorneys who have worked with the Schwartzentruber Amish have also been unsuccessful. But Mr. Dickey says that he welcomes the chance to see if he can find a workable compromise between the state regulations and the Amish beliefs. For his part, Mr. Barbin said “it’s certainly better to try to resolve the issues than [to be] as harsh as possible.”

A potentially more serious issue is developing over the one-room Schwartzentruber Amish schoolhouse that had to be padlocked in March, on the orders of the same judge. The owner of the land on which the schoolhouse was constructed, Andy Schwartzentruber, also refused to build outhouses that would be in compliance with state and country regulations. Mr. Schwartzentruber ultimately served a 90 day sentence in the county jail for contempt of court. The judge ordered the schoolhouse to be padlocked until the school outhouses met regulations.

According to a news story last week, it is doubtful if the 22 children who had been attending the school have gotten any formal education since March. Officials are frustrated because they are not sure whether the families are home schooling the children. It is also not clear what the officials intend to do about it, if anything.

Attorney Dickey also does not know, at this point, if the children are getting any education, but he suspects they are not. Tom Estep, the District Superintendent for the Northern Cambria School District, where the Amish children live, said, “if they are not being educated in an Amish school, they are in violation of the law.” The Schwartzentruber Amish families moved to northern Cambria county over 10 years ago from Ohio. According to the solicitor for the school district, Gary Jubas, they never notified the Pennsylvania Department of Education, as required by state law, to report lesson plans and the numbers of students attending the new school. The state department of education leaves matters like that entirely in the hands of local school districts.

Superintendent Estep made his frustration quite apparent. “They’ve been illegal since they’ve been here, which is longer than I’ve been here,” he said. Mr. Jubas is hoping to get a list of the Amish students who should be attending school from Attorney Dickey. Estep said one possibility might be to canvas door to door throughout the school district to census all residents, but that would be quite expensive. “We’d like them to be educated, certainly, but we’re not going to spend a lot of the district’s money because they’re not going to comply anyway,” he said.

The school district would dearly love to find a way to obtain a list of the school students, so they could notify their parents of the requirement that their children must attend school. They could then file legal charges against parents who refused to comply. “If I found one, I’d go after them,” Mr. Estep said. The Amish families are doubtless aware of the threat and will act accordingly.

The officials, for their part, are undoubtedly aware of the sorry history of American school authorities that have attempted to force Amish families to send their children to public schools. John A. Hostetler (1984), writing about the legal hassles the Amish have experienced at the hands of civil authorities, described episodes of Amish nonresistance in the face of overweening pressures from school administrators.

For instance, in Iowa in the mid 1960s, the press learned about plans for a raid by law enforcement officials on a rural Amish school. The authorities intended to grab the children and force them onto a bus which would take them to a consolidated school. When the officials arrived at the school, the frightened children ran for cover in nearby cornfields. The authorities could only arrest their hysterical parents for not complying with state education laws. Local citizens were outraged—and sympathized with the seemingly helpless Amish.

The controversy finally led to a Supreme Court decision, Wisconsin vs. Yoder in 1972, which gave the Amish the right to educate their children in their own schools, and only as far as the 8th grade. There is a lot of literature, such as Kraybill (1989) and Kidder and Hostetler (1990), which describes the ways the Amish, at times aided by outside organizations, have built up working arrangements so that the civil authorities and Amish leaders can find workable compromises to regulations that both sides can live with. The Cambria County school authorities doubtless do not want to have videos posted to You Tube of screaming Amish children fleeing from sheriff’s deputies into the woods.