- The Washington Times - Monday, September 24, 2012

A New York town has agreed to drop criminal charges against an Amish community that had balked at following modern building codes for their homes by adding such features as bigger windows and smoke detectors — something the traditional sect members argued violate its religious beliefs.

The case tested the boundaries of First Amendment freedoms versus the rights of government to enforce its rules, and both sides made concessions in a settlement.

Morristown, N.Y., officials agreed that some Amish building methods did meet the rules, while the Amish agreed to forgo some techniques that didn’t live up to standards.

On the thorniest issue — smoke detectors — neither side caved. The town’s code inspector will install detectors before giving homes a final approval, but whether they remain is up to the homeowners, as it is in any home.

“This is a really good settlement. It means the Amish are not going to jail and they can continue living in Morristown,” Lori Windham, an attorney for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which helped represent the Amish, said Monday in announcing the settlement. “It shows how cities and small religious communities can work together and cooperate to meet everyone’s goals.”

The Amish population in the U.S. is growing, and they are pushing into areas they’ve never been before, which means localities are having to grapple with the issues they raise.

A census of Amish by researchers at Ohio State University, released this summer, found that communities are popping up at a rate of more than one a month, and that New York is a major area of growth, with 15 new settlements since 2010.

The community in Morristown has been around for several decades, but it wasn’t until 2006, when the town updated its building codes, that officials began to grapple with the Amish and their religiously based building practices.

Kay Davis, the town’s code enforcement officer, filed charges against the first of what eventually would be 12 Amish men, saying they were building homes or putting up additions without submitting plans or opening the homes to inspection.

The men then sued the town, arguing that the building code requirements made them violate their religious beliefs.

After years in state and federal court, and starts and stops in negotiations, they reached a settlement.

“The parties agreed to a framework for the Amish members of the community to bring their homes into compliance via a number of different strategies that are consistent with the state building code,” said Gregg T. Johnson, a lawyer who represented Morristown.

The Amish in Morristown are part of the Swartzentruber sect, which leans more conservative. Adherents shun modern technology and said that submitting architectural plans, allowing home inspections and installing smoke detectors violated their beliefs.

Both sides dug in and the initial fight was rocky, but they reached some common ground.

The Amish agreed to build homes with larger bedroom windows, which they already did in some other rooms, and agreed to use one particular method for attaching roofs that met the building code.

Story Continues →