Amish sue Minnesota over religious beliefs on treating wastewater

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Throughout the years, the Amish have fought -- and in some cases compromised -- with regulations, including having to attach reflective signs to the back of their buggies, receiving vaccines, and installing wastewater systems. Max Sunshine

Members of an Amish community in southeast Minnesota have been sued, fined thousands of dollars, and threatened with the dismantling of their homes if they don't install sewage systems.

They've remained intractable in their belief, however, that the Bible has directed them to disobey.

Led by Ammon Swartzentruber, Menno Mast, Amos Mast, and Sam Miller, the Swartzentruber Amish are suing the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and Fillmore County in return, claiming that the government's incessant demands that they alter what they do with their wastewater violates their right to religious freedom.

The Swartzentruber Amish are one of the most conservative subgroups of the Old Order Amish. They've remained totally restrictive in their use of electricity and cars, even while other Amish groups have relaxed some of their bans on modern conveniences.

The unwritten codes of the Swartzentrubers require that wastewater from washing food and dishes, bathing, and laundry be recycled for watering crops and vegetable gardens.

Since 2013, however, this practice has been illegal in Minnesota.

At the time, the MPCA passed rules that require all households to install wastewater treatment systems that would prevent bacteria from polluting the groundwater. Fillmore County, where the Swartzentruber reside, followed suit.

These rules are especially necessary, says MPCA spokeswoman Cathy Rofshus, because the area's topography is characterized by porous bedrock and thin soils. That makes it easy for pollutants to seep into the groundwater.

Rofshus confirmed the groundwater near the Swartzentruber community has not been tested for evidence of pollutants.

However, there have been other instances where Amish traditions have bumped heads with public health. In 2005, a number of Amish children in Todd County were hospitalized with polio, which has been mostly eradicated among the general population due to a global vaccination effort decades ago.

"One theory was that the virus was being spread through the waste in diapers," says Rofshus. "That's a community too that we did work with that has come into compliance with wastewater issues."

According to the lawsuit, Fillmore County has obtained court orders to forcibly evict Swartzentruber from his home by removing his doors, windows, and wood stove. The county is also seeking an order to do the same to Mast, while charging both men for the trouble.

Nevertheless, the Swartzentruber Amish believe they cannot bend.

"Plaintiffs believe that installation and use of these wastewater systems is contrary to their religious faith and, if they comply with this policy, they will have to answer for this utilization of wastewater systems at the Day of Judgment," according to the suit.

 


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