An interesting decision by an Ohio Municipal Court was just posted in State of Ohio v. Bontrager, (OH Munic. Ct., June 24, 2008). The court explored a free exercise challenge by Adam Bontrager who refused to install a septic tank because the use of electricity would violate his Amish beliefs. In the end, sewage treatment trumped free exercise.
Bontrager was defending against criminal charges in his refusing to build the septic tank. Bontrager was convicted and fined $50. The court, however, explored the variations within the Amish community before ruling against him:
To determine the “sincerity” of the defendant’s religious beliefs, the test is “whether a given belief * * * occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God” * * * it is more than a personal or philosophical belief. Bontrager, supra, citing United States v. Seeger (1965), 380 U.S. 163, and Wisconsin v. Yoder, supra.
The defendant testified that there are different “sects” (for lack of a better term) of
the Amish – each has its own church and bishop based upon geography, i.e., where they reside in relation to the particular church. According to the defendant, while they all follow the same general religious beliefs, they all operate somewhat independently of each other. The defendant agreed that his particular church and bishop permit the possession of a telephone (in an outbuilding). If a member of his church is a construction contractor, that person is permitted to have a cell phone (only on the job). Members of the church are permitted to have gasoline- powered motors, which he has on his property and which operates a water pump for his drinking
water, among other things. Conversely, while some sects allow the use of electricity, the defendant’s church and bishop do not, and defendant testified that he would be expelled from the church if he complied with the Department of Health’s regulation with regard to this particular septic system.
The court notes that the defendant joined this particular church two years ago
when he married and moved onto this particular piece of property. Nevertheless, he was willing to subject himself to this prosecution rather than violate that particular tenant of his church. Thus, the court finds that the defendant’s religious beliefs in this instance are sincerely held.
Yet, the Court still wants Bontrager going in a proper septic tank. This is not the first time that state compelling interests have collided with Amish values. Not long ago, there was an Amish challenge to the requirement of Homeland Security for all permanent residents to be photographs. The Amish view photos as prohibited “graven images.”
For the opinion, click here.