Amish Family Ordered to Connect to Public Sewer System
A Pennsylvania three-judge panel has ordered an Old Order Amish family, the Yoders, to connect to a municipal sewer through an electric grinder pump despite their religious beliefs against the use of electricity.
“How much of an intrusion is required to protect the health, safety and general welfare of the community?” Matthew J. Creme Jr., a Lancaster-based attorney specializing in municipal law, said is often the question when it comes to making these decisions and determining whether or not the court should place public health and safety above religious beliefs.
Plaintiffs Joseph and Barbara Yoder have continuously refused to comply with Sugar Grove Township’s Mandatory Connection Ordinance, according to court documents, citing religious freedom. This case is the third sewer-connection action involving the Yoders in the past five years.
Sugar Grove Township’s Mandatory Connection Ordinance requires any property owner whose property abuts the Sugar Grove Area Sewer Authority sewer system to connect their properties to the sewage system. In its majority opinion, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania concluded the electric grinder pump was the least intrusive option available for the Yoders to comply with this ordinance and connect to the public system. The judges pointed out that there are other instances in which the Yoders have used electricity in their endeavors in the past and were not shunned from the Amish community.
“The court, in this case, articulated what is least intrusive and least offensive to their sensibilities to protect public health and safety,” Creme confirmed.
The dissenting opinion argued that the Yoders are sincere in their religion-based shunning of electricity and haven’t been violating the ordinance simply out of spite. The dissent also argued the family was being denied its religious rights and that there were other ways in which the court could have required compliance from the Yoders that would uphold their religious freedom – the court’s requirement to connect to the public system via a grinder pump was largely unnecessary.
Steve Nolt, the senior scholar at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College said, “Practicing religion is not just about going to church on Sunday mornings. For the Amish, it’s their entire way of life.” He added, “The fact that [the Yoders] used telephones, power tools and cars has nothing to do with this issue from the Amish point of view.” He stated the issue, instead, is more about where the technology is used and how much is being utilized. The Amish determine how much technology to use based on these factors. As an example, Amish schools have the least amount of technology, while more items may be permitted in a home, and the most technology may be used in barns and workshops so certain tasks can be performed.
“In general, I tend to go into these things viewing it as a religious liberty issue,” Nolt said. “That said, I’m also at least somewhat sympathetic to the other side. Where do my rights stop for your rights to begin?”