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On The Front Lines

The Rutherford Institute Defends Amish Community's Right to Accommodation of Religious Beliefs, Practices

Institute Attorneys Appeal to Michigan Circuit Court on Behalf of Old Order Amish Farmers

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have asked the Michigan State Circuit Court to intervene in a situation involving six Amish farmers who have been denied religious accommodation by the Central Michigan District Health Department. The Amish, also referred to as the Old Order Amish or "Plain People," have been practicing a way of life that revolves around their deeply held religious beliefs for over 300 years. The Amish believe in following the Bible literally and cite Romans 12:2, "Be ye not conformed to the world" as their chief tenet.
Typically, the Amish maintain an attitude of separation from the world: They wear plain clothing and generally oppose automobiles, electricity, telephones and higher education beyond eighth grade. They also do not use gasoline, electricity, commercial chemicals or chlorofluorocarbons, all of which pollute the environment. However, because many in the Amish community are adamant about not compromising their religious beliefs, they continue to encounter opposition from various state interests.

One of the most recent incidents occurred when the Central Michigan District Health Department issued an order requiring the Amish residents of Gladwin County, Mich., to install complex septic and sewage disposal systems to prevent runoff from household wastewater. However, the Amish lifestyle is so simple that it does not even include indoor plumbing aside from kitchen sink wastewater that flows into a tile lined septic system in their yards. Aware that the CMDHD sanitary code does allow for alternate systems and insisting that the department's wastewater disposal system is tailored to a non-Amish lifestyle, six Amish farmers proposed an alternative simple system of wastewater removal that allows them to safely and effectively remove wastewater while still adhering to their Amish religious beliefs and practices. According to an independent hydrogeologist called in to investigate the farmers' proposal, the simple system both meets and exceeds all requirements of the health department's sanitary code. Despite the hydrogeologist's assessment of the alternate simple system proposal, the CMDHD board refused to grant the variance request. In their petition to the circuit court to review the situation, Institute attorneys argue that unnecessarily forcing the Old Order Amish farmers to introduce such modern amenities goes contrary to their deeply held religious beliefs.

"For centuries the Amish people have lived quiet, productive lives in accordance with their religious faith," stated John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. "The Michigan health department's attempts to force its Amish citizens to comply with practices that contradict their faith and way of life is a blatant violation of their constitutional right to freely exercise their faith and a denial of the religious pluralism to which the state claims to be committed."

The Rutherford Institute is an international, nonprofit civil liberties organization committed to defending constitutional and human rights.

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Nisha N. Mohammed
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Email: Nisha N. Mohammed