Hidden in “plain” sight

lancaster_county_amish_03Radically humble, oriented towards group consensus rather than individual choice, the Amish are a challenge for the reporters who write about them.

Over the years, newspapers in areas that abut or are heavily populated by the Amish, like Lancaster, or the Delaware Valley, have developed ways of covering stories that respect the culture of this deeply private Christian group.

A conversation with an Amish individual is an opportunity to ask some questions, sensitively phrased, that will illuminate the subject at hand.

Thus it’s a bit odd to stumble across a story in which the AP reporter apparently had a chance to ask a few direct questions about a compelling and persistent sidebar in American’s ongoing church and state debate.

What happens when group members move into a new community and their beliefs clash with local laws? The topic in this case is the conflict that erupts when Amish don’t follow local building codes.

Instead, most of his article is fueled by quotes from lawyers, municipal officials, and Amish advocates.

The article starts promisingly –

Daniel Borntreger’s home looks like hundreds of other Wisconsin farmhouses: two-story A-frame, porch, clothes on the line.

But his home could cost him thousands of dollars in fines because the Amish farmer built the house himself, by Amish tradition but without a building permit.

His case is among at least 18 legal actions brought against Amish residents in Wisconsin and New York in the last year and a half for building without proper permits, according to court records, attorneys and advocates for the Amish.

The cases have sparked debates about where religion ends and government begins. Amish advocates – Amish won’t defend themselves – argue that the Amish belief that they must live apart from the world trumps regulations.

“The permit itself might not be so bad, but to change your lifestyle to have to get one, that’s against our convictions,” Borntreger said as he sat in his kitchen with his wife, Ruth.

Here’s what a journalist might have asked at this point. What is it about your convictions that is being violated by following local building ordinances and getting permits?

I’m not sure if the writer assumes that we know why Amish don’t comply with some civil laws, or that he didn’t get a chance to ask more questions.

A bit further into the article, the writer paraphrases a local municipal authority to illuminate the status of the Lancaster County Amish with regard to building codes.

In Pennsylvania, home to a large Amish population, liberal-leaning congregations have lobbied successfully for exemptions in the state building code, including permission to forgo electricity and quality-graded lumber, said Frank Howe, chairman of the board of supervisors in Leacock Township in Lancaster County.

What on earth does “liberal-leaning” mean when applied to the Amish? Or Howe talking about the Amish at all?

The writer does give us an interesting factoid: the number of Amish in the U.S. has doubled over the past 15 years.

In other words, these conflicts aren’t going away anytime soon, and probably reporters won’t stop writing about them.

As University of Michigan Professor Douglas Laycock suggests at the end of the article, the Amish can make a potent argument that they are entitled in the United States to continue to practice their religion freely.

Being Amish, of course, they must rely on “English” legal advocates and friends to do this for them.

But a few more quotes revealing the convictions at the “heart” of this story would have gone a long way to making it more than the clatter of discordant voices.

Picture of Amish buggy is from Wikimedia Commons

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  • Jerry

    You reference led me to a signin page for a service I don’t have so I went to google. I wonder if the issue this time was what the editor did rather than the writer. I found this that seems to be at least a partial answer to your question about his convictions for refusing the sign the permit: lying, for one and/or installing devices such as smoke detectors that are against their religion.

    Stoltzfus believed signing a permit would amount to lying because he wouldn’t follow parts of the code that violate his religion, said Robert Greene, an attorney with the National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom, which has intervened in his case.

    Custom-built homes are allowed in Wisconsin as long as the plans meet code standards, but apparently the Amish don’t understand that, said Paul Millis, the attorney suing the Amish in Jackson County. The Town of Albion, where Samuel F. Stolzfus lives, waived a requirement that permits be signed so the Amish could avoid violating their religious beliefs, but they still won’t comply, he said.

    Attorneys acting on behalf of the Amish argue they have a constitutional right to religious freedom. They don’t have to conform to building regulations that require them to use architectural drawings, smoke detectors, quality-graded lumber and inspections, Steve Ballan, an assistant public defender assigned to the Amish in Morristown wrote in court documents.

    http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/national/1110ap_amish_building_codes.html?source=mypi

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    As a Catholic parent I wish the story had delved a bit more into the explosive doubling of the Amish population in America it reported. Was the cause immigration??? Was the cause conversions??? Or was the cause (as I suspect) natural increase caused by their not buying into the abortion-birth control mentality that is leading to the self-genocide of so many mainstream Christian groups (and other European peoples including adamant secularists)which have become virtual cheer-leaders for these parts of the Culture of Death.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    Architectural drawings required? A reporter should look into the influence of the architects’ trade groups on that piece of legislation.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=3978 E.E. Evans

    Jerry, thanks for pointing that out to me. I just got home and noticed the bad link and fixed it. My bad. The new one should take you to the story.

  • http://www.followingthelede.blogspot.com Sabrina
  • JOHN WICKEY

    Two comments from someone who was Amish as a child: No matter what they tell reporters, Amish do not refer to oursiders as “English.” They call the “hohe leut,” those higher than us socially. They were originally peasantry. And they are more Catholic than Catholic when it comes to family planning. They don’t.

  • David Layman

    To Deacon Bresnahan:

    There is no Amish immigration that I know of (I don’t think there are anymore Amish in Europe), and only an oddball conversion here and there.

    This increase is strictly procreation-based.

    See the comment by Mr. Wickey.


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