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.
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.
Morristown, meanwhile, realized that one of the methods the Amish used to attach homes to foundations already met the hurricane standards in the code, and recognized that the Amish homes’ cellars worked as frost-proof foundations, Ms. Windham said.
As for smoke detectors, Mr. Johnson said, the town insisted that the homes meet the code when they are inspected, which he said in this case means the city inspector will do the installation. But he said what happens after that is beyond Morristown’s control.
“There’s nowhere in the law that requires any citizen to be policed in that regard as to whether they keep their smoke detectors operable,” he said.
Case law is scant when it comes to building codes versus religious liberties, but the conflicts are proliferating.
In Kansas, Amish are clashing with Bourbon County officials who want to stop them from using outhouses that don’t comply with waste disposal tank requirements, Reuters news agency reported this year.
In one instance, in Pennsylvania in 2009, an Amish man was sentenced to 90 days in jail for violating outhouse codes.
Jail time was also a possibility in the Morristown case until the settlement, Ms. Windham said.
“It took nearly four years to get to a settlement, so it’s been a long road and a bumpy road,” she said. “There were definitely times we thought this would be going to trial.”
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Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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