What would Amish build?

amish homesI think it’s tremendously interesting when the local newspaper gives a local story a completely different angle than the non-local news source. Case in point is the difference between the Watertown Daily Times coverage of their town’s attempt to crackdown on Old Order Amish home builders for violating housing codes (think no smoke detectors) and the Associated Press.

Just compare the leads. Here is the Daily Times:

MORRISTOWN — The town is making a statewide appeal for help in prosecuting Amish men for building homes without permits.

Ten members of the conservative religious group have been charged in the clash between building codes and religious tenets that shun modernization. Town councilors sent a letter Saturday to newspapers to pressure legislators and the state Department of State to provide financial and technical help in dealing with the pending trials.

And here is the Associated Press:

MORRISTOWN, N.Y. (AP) — The religious rights of 10 Old Order Amish men are being violated by an upstate New York town that is selectively prosecuting them for building homes without permits, a national public interest group charged Tuesday.

Meanwhile, elected officials in rural Morristown accuse the state of turning its back on them in the dispute, which the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty said involves discrimination against the Amish.

The question comes down to whether the religious rights of the Old Order Amish can be trumped by the will of the majority. The legislative branch of the state’s government puts in the housing codes, and local executive branch officials are trying to enforce them. Will the courts step in and declare that the majority can’t require this minority group to follow their rules for religious reasons? We’ll just have to wait and see.

What is fairly clear is that the local newspaper seems to have a bit more sympathy for the local officials. They are portrayed as merely trying to enforce the laws on the books, while the Amish and their antiquated version of the German language is creating a real hassle and causing the town a load of legal costs.

While the Daily Times sheds tears for the local officials who are resisting the urge to blink in their battle with the Amish, the AP gets to the heart of the story and sheds light on what is likely to happen and the legal ramifications of this case:

On Tuesday, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C.-based legal organization, joined the dispute, sending a 5-page letter to the town board, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.

“Continued prosecution of these cases would result in the violation of a number of federal constitutional and statutory provisions that protect religious and linguistic minorities, as well as New York’s own constitutional protections for religious exercise and against discrimination,” attorney Lori Windham wrote.

In a telephone interview, Windham said “it is illegal to selectively enforce a law against a particular religious group, unless there is a demonstrated compelling government interest in that enforcement, and the government uses the least restrictive means available.”

This story is worth following if only to see how the local paper continues to cover the story. Is the real reason local officials are pursuing the Amish because they are concerned that other builders will try to skirt housing ordinances? Is there a market outside the Amish community for homes that don’t meet the state’s building codes? There is something fishy going on in Morristown, N.Y., and hopefully it will be revealed.

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  • Julia

    Is there a market outside the Amish community for homes that don’t meet the state’s building codes?

    Good question;I’ll take it a bit further. Are some of the Amish builders putting up homes (and barns) for non-Amish on non-Amish land? Maybe to make some money after a bad harvest? That might change the whole picture on why the sudden effort to enforce building codes against the Amish.

  • http://www.biblicalrecorder.org norman

    It is not a quality issue. Anyone I know who has access to Amish builders is glad to get them. Julia’s question is legitimate. I would think “religious reasons” would only exempt Amish builders from following building codes if they are building on Amish land for other Amish. Quality Amish builders who are building commercially would logically have to follow the building codes put in place for safety of the general populace.

  • http://www.myspace.com/faithfulfolk Mark Anderson

    If we decide to build a new church building for my local Lutheran congregation in Woodstock, NY should we be required to meet the minimum requirements of the NY State Building Code?

    If we decide to build a new home (parsonage) for our pastor, should we be required to meet the code requirements?

    In other words, should the minimum requirements for building safety apply to buildings owned by religious groups or religious persons as well as to private, commercial, public, and governmental buildings?

  • Dave

    Mark Anderson writes:

    [...S]hould the minimum requirements for building safety apply to buildings owned by religious groups or religious persons as well as to private, commercial, public, and governmental buildings?

    The exemption sought for the Amish is not on the basis of religion generally, but that the Amish religiously reject some of the modern technologies incorporated into state building codes.

    Unless you could proved that Lutherans make a similar rejection on religious grounds, your church and parsonage would have to conform to the code.

  • http://auspiciousdragon.com/wp/ holmegm

    Unless you could proved that Lutherans make a similar rejection on religious grounds, your church and parsonage would have to conform to the code.

    Which puts the state in a strange position of having to declare what is “really” a religious stricture.

    What if I just *think* that my religion requires (or forbids) something? Am I wrong? Should some government panel decide that?

  • Lloyd

    What is religion? What is religious freedom?

    Can I create a bunch of un-biblical rules and regulations in the name of a god and get a group of people to follow these rules and regulations and then call it a religious belief and then proclaim a right to religious freedom and say that MY rules and regulations are above the laws of the town that I live in? I don’t think so!

    I WAS an Amishman for 44 years, trying to please and glorify the Lord with my good works, only to find out that the unbeliever was to observe my walk with the Lord and it was they (the unbelievers) that were to glorify God! Not me. A good example of this is when we see a beautiful sunset; we glorify God when we marvel at the sunset.

    1Peters 2:12 …….. they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation.

    So, …. Will the unbeliever glorify God when my horse poops all over the road and they need to drive through it? Will the unbeliever glorify God when the steel wheels on my tractor and the steel shoes on my horse digs up the highway? Will the unbeliever glorify God when I dump raw outhouse crap on the field across the road from their house? Will the unbeliever glorify God when I refuse to abide by the laws because I feel I’m above the law? Will the unbeliever glorify God when I refuse to pay the fines that I receive after I “broke” the law? Will the unbeliever glorify God when I shun my neighbor because he no longer wants to follow my man made rules and go to another church that recognizes the Full Gospel? I don’t think so!

    If all Mennonites, Catholics, Lutheran, Methodist and Baptist in this town are abiding by the law and the Amish are the only ones that are not abiding, how can anyone say that the Amish are being selectively prosecuted and targeted? They are not being targeted; they are being BULL-HEADED.

    An X-Amish

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  • Bob Gorman

    Dear dpulliam:

    As managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times (there is no “Daily News” in this area) I will be happy to help you “see how the local paper continues to cover the story.”

    (For the record, Morristown is 48 miles from Watertown so while there are indeed “fishy” things going on in Watertown, building code violations by the Amish is not one of them).

    If you think it would help, I can forward the 37 previous articles we have published regarding this long-brewing conflict, including the one you reference from the AP. I can forward you the stories we will continue to print on this issue.

    I can also email you dozens of jpeg images from our files of Amish children at play, Amish men building barns and Amish buggies struck by cars. I can forward the stories on Amish bartering with area businesses, land purchases by the Amish and Amish farming’s effect on dairy processing plants.

    Having this background might pose a threat to your speculation as to how our paper covers Amish issues. But it would give you an informed opinion, a risk I’m sure your readers hope you would be willing to take.


    Bob Gorman
    Managing Editor
    Watertown Daily Times
    260 Washington St.
    Watertown, NY 13601
    315-782-1000, ext. 2359


    “Tosach catha agus deire air”

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2677 dpulliam

    Thank you Bob for pointing that out and for the comment. Any additional information you want to send along that would provide context that the story didn’t include would be more than welcome.

    I am at dpulliam [[at]] gmail.com.

  • Dave

    holmegm writes:

    Which puts the state in a strange position of having to declare what is “really” a religious stricture.

    Indeed it does. There’s an old lawyerly saying, “Hard cases make bad law,” and there are no easy cases in this area.

  • Jerry

    A meta comment: One of the very nice things about this blog is the active readership; Bob Gorman’s note being the latest example. Rarely our distinguished contributors get off track but in those cases a knowledgeable reader will leap into the breech.

  • Lori Windham

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post and comments. A couple of notes:

    To our knowledge, all of these homes are being used by the Amish community, rather than manufactured for outsiders.

    Mark Anderson poses an interesting question, one that we hear a lot. As other commentors pointed out, the Amish case is different from the Lutheran church he describes. Unlike your average church on the corner, the Amish live by a strict set of religious rules, some of which are in direct conflict with the building code. (For instance, electrical wiring requirements and the use of electrical smoke detectors.) The Amish face a direct and difficult choice between following their beliefs and following the law.

    Some of these cases can be difficult, but not all are. Our courts do not–and should not–determine whether religious beliefs are valid or sensible or widely shared. But courts are perfectly capable of determining whether those beliefs are sincerely held; they judge the credibility of witnesses every day.

    Lori Windham
    The Becket Fund

  • Michael

    While the Daily Times sheds tears for the local officials who are resisting the urge to blink in their battle with the Amish, the AP gets to the heart of the story

    Well, they to the heart of one side’s story. Two paragraphs telling the side of the county, a few neutral paragraphs, and 10 paragraphs telling the side of the Amish, including multiple quotes from all of their attorneys. As a legal story, not exactly balanced.

    No wonder the Becket Fund has the story on their website. You can’t buy publicity like an AP story that gives all the focus to one side.

    The Amish are very sympathetic to outsiders, but maybe a little less sympathetic when they are in your community. I wonder what the AP story would have read like if it were Muslims involved instead of the Amish.

  • http://groups.yahoo.com/group/NonDualBibleVerses/?yguid=198063426 Eric Chaffee

    Yes, Daniel — something fishy has been going on for a great long while. It’s called, simply, the tyranny of the majority. And it isn’t confined to rural Upstate NY. John Rawls, in his landmark book, Theory of Justice, reminds us that there is real value in protecting conscientious objectors of many stripes. And scientists in general value the odd group willing to serve voluntarily as a control group. (For example — those who never have smoke detectors, such as the Amish, might become valuable in studying the absence in their systems of the radio isotopes that are incorporated into many of these devices. But if everybody must have these alarms, where will the scientists find a control group? Certainly it would be unethical to require or bribe a group to do without them.)

    Let’s not be so hasty to condemn a culture merely because the mainstream has outlawed certain practices which said culture holds dear. Speaking as a private Christian Scientist, I can assert that the State does not have a compelling interest in restricting honestly held religious convictions, no matter how wacky they may seem to the mainstream mentality. Canaries in the coal mine can avert disaster.


    PS: I can also appreciate the former Amishman’s view. He likely WAS the loyal opposition within his former community — but that tyrannical majority probably had little tolerance of his dissenting views. (Thus his mention of “shunning” ala Matthew 18.) If so, his former members are guilty of the very thing they now stand accused of — namely, intolerance. How ironic.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Sorry to get in here late on this.

    As a rule, courts tend to allow religious groups a very wide range of freedoms in cases such as these. Courts rarely tread on doctrine unless they are dealing with fraud, profit or clear threat to life. A classic case would be the issue of blood transfusions for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Then again, courts have struggled with issues of parents trusting faith healers to care for their children, rather than doctors. We are dealing with tough issues, but this one seems rather clear. No fraud, profit or clear threat to life or health.

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    Maybe the Amish could declare their area a subdivision and have their own bylaws….

    There’s barn raisings and there’s barn razings.

    You know, it’s not like the Amish slap together plywood for homes. What would the code violations be? No electricity? No running water? DO they need to meet ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) specs?

    And yet Mormonism had to abandon polygamy to allow Utah to be added as a state….

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2677 dpulliam

    Not only did Utah (and the entire Mormon religion) have to abandon polygamy to be added as a state, several western states constitutions were required to ban polygamy in their constitutions in order for Congress to let them into the union.

    Imagine a country where mere morality was the basis of its laws.

  • Abe Abraham

    Abe says: I have been a construction designer and builder for over 40 plus years. I have Amish friends I go and spend time with every summer I am back in the midwest and they have come to spend time with me. I love my Amish friends dearly, BUT. I do have to say because they do not have either the experience and or knowlege in structural spanning and in some areas of structural support distances and sizes it scares me to go into some building I have been in. I have found structural beams way over spanned and inproperly constructed in barns, they were over spanned and sagging in the center as much as 3-4 inches. When I addressed this problem with my friend as I feared for his familys safety, he said that’s the way we always build them. I don’t believe that is true, because in the old days the older generation used rough sawed planks of greater strength and size. I have found hay mow floors using current lumber sizes over spanned and floor joist to far apart for the size used. When the hay comes in now days it is in bales, the density of a huge and highly stacked bale pile is far greater, then the lose hay we threw up there in the old days, therefore causeing far greater weight on those floor joist now then back then. I would agree if the Amish wish to build with out having to pay for local permits, fine, let have that, as the tax assessor will diffinetly tax them for the barn anyway, as a permit is required to be copied to the assessor’s office anyway. How ever for the safety of the children who occupy those barns doing their chores, as they do and I am so pleased they do and have those jobs, please have the kindness to hand out or pass out engineered spans and beam sizes sheets to these great folks to enlighten them to what our lumber these days is capable of handling. Believe me it is not the same as yesteryear. As for Amish building for non-Amish. I definetly would require permits, as a contractor your religion has nothing to do with making a lively hood outside of you religious order. Other wise I’ll just have my church create a doctine next month stating we don’t believe in government control on our lives either, just so I don’t have to pay the fees here in California. And believe me, on a new house out here we are talking big bucks. Oh, as a side note, I have also not only done work as a construction and structural designer, I am also a licenced California contactor, and I have been an all trades construction inspector for 34 of those 40 plus years.