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Sometimes, small city newspapers publish articles that capture national attention. On Saturday, January 9, the Watertown Daily Times from upstate New York ran a story which highlighted an obscure provision in both the Senate and the House health care bills before the U.S. Congress. Both bills would provide a religious exemption from the requirement that all Americans must be covered by health insurance.

The article connected that exemption to the interests of the Amish, and mentioned that their numbers in the north country of New York state have been increasing. It stated that the Amish do not want to pay for insurance since they believe in relying on their own communities when they need assistance.

The Times went on to describe an objection to the proposed religious exemption made by a professor at Yeshiva University in New York, Marci Hamilton. Professor Hamilton posted an opinion piece to a legal website on August 6, 2009, decrying the religious exemption allowed in the legislation. She presumed the exemption was instigated by the Christian Science Church. When the newspaper checked with her, she told it via an e-mail that she was unaware of any Amish interest in the bill.

Amish objections to mandated health insurance surprised Professor Hamilton because, she argued, they “do buy vehicle insurance.” She apparently told the paper that her major concern was for children that might not have medical coverage—the same point she made in her August post. She appears to have been unaware that the Amish do not own motor vehicles.

Late Monday, the Drudge Report, a conservative, muck-raking, news aggregator website, picked up the Times story, according to a later report in the paper. The newspaper website immediately got 32,000 visitors and by noon on Tuesday an additional 76,000 people had visited. Since many hundreds of those visitors each hour were attempting to post responses, the paper had to temporarily shut down its comments feature.

A few of the opinions posted to blog sites around the Web have been well informed. For instance, Eric Wesner, who runs a blog about the Amish, posted on Tuesday a piece expressing his surprise that the Amish exemption from health insurance had received so much attention on the Web—a “hot sub-story to the health care issue,” he called it. Mr. Wesner has a background in publishing and was recently associated with the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College.

The law that established Medicare in 1965 included a provision that specifically released the Amish from any requirement to pay into the Social Security system, since they would never take any funds out of it. Even self-employed Amish farmers had been required to make social security payments before then, despite their religious objections to the system. Their beliefs require them to rely on their communities, and God, to provide for their needs when they get old or sick. Before the law was passed, the Internal Revenue Service had placed liens on some of their properties as a way of collecting the social security taxes that they refused to pay. A 1988 federal law modified the 1965 law to exempt Amish-owned businesses from the requirement of including their Amish employees in the social security system.

Mr. Wesner suggests that Amish objections to the insurance requirement in the health care bills currently before Congress may not be as defensible as their rejection of social security. The bills, after all, do allow people who do not wish to be part of the required health system to pay fines instead. Wesner feels that such fines, which many non-Amish people will also probably pay in order to avoid the new system, are not as coercive as required payments into Social Security.

He cites Peter Ferrara’s (1993) analysis of the problems the Amish have with government insurance programs. They feel they would undercut the biblical injunction that Christians should assist their own members and not rely on the state. They would also contradict and weaken the wall of separation from the secular society that the Amish try to maintain.

Wesner concludes his essay by mentioning, briefly, that existing IRS regulations include a provision that prohibits religiously motivated non-participants from owning any other health insurance. He doesn’t claim to be a lawyer, but he does quote a portion of an IRS publication directed to people who want to have a religious exemption from Social Security. The IRS publication appears to relate to the current matter: “As a follower of the established teachings of the sect or division, you must be conscientiously opposed to accepting benefits of any private or public insurance that makes payments for death, disability, old age, retirement, or medical care, or provides services for medical care.” Thus it sounds, from Wesner’s analysis, as if an exemption for the Amish in the current health bills fits in correctly with already-established federal laws and regulations.

The main stream media began to pick up the issue as the week went by. A Harrisburg television station reported the story on Wednesday, and Fox News covered it Friday evening in their 6:00 PM program. A report by Molly Henneberg in the first half of the show touched on the issue. She interviewed Prof. Steven Nolt, author of several scholarly books about the Amish.

“The Amish believe it’s the fundamental responsibility of the church to care for the material needs of the members of the church,” according to Prof. Nolt, “and so they don’t buy commercial health insurance and they don’t participate in public assistance programs.” The legal expert that Fox News consulted feels that the religious exemptions provided in the health care bill will be completely constitutional.

The victory of the Republican candidate for Senate in Tuesday’s special election in Massachusetts eliminated the 60-vote supermajority needed to overcome a potential Republican filibuster. The fate of the health care initiative is now unclear, but perhaps the Amish issue may soon start to diminish. As of late yesterday afternoon, an advanced Google search on AMISH and “HEALTH CARE” still returned 14,600 results for just the previous 24 hours.

Ferrara, Peter J.1993. “Social Security and Taxes.” In The Amish and the State, edited by Donald B. Kraybill, p.124-143. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press