- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The outcry over a Wisconsin Amish family ordered by a court to leave their home is fueling a legislative push for a religious exemption from building codes requiring smoke alarms and other modern devices.

Republican state Rep. Kathleen Bernier said Wednesday she plans to insert language in the state budget bill to carve out an exemption for “longheld religious beliefs” in the Urban Dwelling Code’s permitting rules on electrical devices and indoor plumbing.

In a Monday ruling, Circuit Court Judge Kristina Bourget ordered Amos and Vera Borntreger, who have four children younger than 6, to vacate their home after they refused to sign two building permits required by Eau Claire County under the Urban Dwelling Code.

“It’s just plain wrong,” said Ms. Bernier. “I don’t understand why a judge, even though she may disagree with the Amish not obtaining and signing their building permit, would do this. You know, throw them in jail for three days. They would probably accept that. But to evict them from their homes because they didn’t have a permit — I don’t know.”

She said Republican Gov. Scott Walker is on board with her plans to amend the budget bill. “I have the assurance from Gov. Walker that he will not veto the provision,” Ms. Bernier said.

“I met with him last week and I spoke with him about it and he recognizes this is religious freedom,” she said.

The religious exemption has met for years with opposition from the Wisconsin Building Association, but the group’s lobbyist met Wednesday with Ms. Bernier to discuss a legislative remedy.

The organization fought legislation two years ago to provide a religious exemption, which WBA advocacy director Brad Boycks said was “too broadly written,” but he said this year that “we’re hopeful after the meeting today that we’re going to be able to get on the same page.”

“We want to have it narrowly crafted so those people that have that issue can possibly get a remedy,” Mr. Boycks said. “With any luck, with some conversations, talking about some ideas we both have, we’ll be able to get something done.”

The judge’s Monday order came as the final straw for supporters of the Amish in Eau Claire County, home to a large Old Order Amish population, who say the religious community has been bedeviled by the county’s enforcement of the permitting rules for a decade.

The county filed six cases against Amish families in 2013, most of which were resolved after the families agreed to obtain building and sanitary permits, according to a Tuesday memo by Eau Claire County corporation counsel Keith R. Zehms.

David Mortimer, who lives in Eau Claire County and belongs to the National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom, said local residents have banded together to defend the Amish from what they see as government-sponsored religious discrimination.

Mr. Mortimer and others packed the courthouse for Monday’s hearing on the Borntreger case. Amish supporters have also started the Facebook page Stand with Eau Claire County Amish Families.

“We’re just people who see our tax dollars being used to force these people to use modern ways,” Mr. Mortimer said.

Eau Claire County attorneys noted that Judge Bourget’s order was not technically an “eviction,” but rather a contempt of court citation for failing to obtain the required building and sanitary permits. It does require the family to leave the home though under force of law.

“The court ordered the parties to vacate the dwelling immediately and that the dwelling be placarded as unfit for human habitation until the parties come into compliance with obtaining a building permit and sanitary permit,” said the memo from Mr. Zehms. “This is not an ‘eviction’ as portrayed in the media.”

The judge declared in September that the Borntregers “did not have a sincerely held religious belief against applying for a building permit and sanitary permit,” his memo said.

Mr. Mortimer said the problems began in 2005 with the Uniform Dwelling Code, which was designed to ensure high building standards in Wisconsin but has left little flexibility for the Amish and their homes, which are known for their sturdy construction as well as their lack of electricity and indoor plumbing.

“Before about 2005, it was not a problem. The Amish were paying their fees, pulling their permits and successfully having inspections,” Mr. Mortimer said. “It’s only with the new Uniform Dwelling Code where the bar is much higher — the sanitary permit, they can’t have outhouses anymore — it’s just a lot of things.”

Supporters of the Amish also say tension exists between local contractors and the Amish, who are skilled builders and tend to charge lower rates.

“As the law becomes more complicated, you are more likely to hire a professional to do your building,” Mr. Mortimer said. “The Amish build a lot of log cabins and they do a lot of contracting as crews, and I don’t think the building associations and unions appreciate or respect Amish people doing that kind of work.”

Mr. Boycks said he wasn’t aware of such problems.

The builders’ association has been joined in the past by firefighters in objecting to exempting the Amish from rules requiring smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors, saying such devices are needed to protect the Amish and their neighbors.

Ms. Bernier pointed out that the Amish, who tend to live in rural areas with volunteer fire departments, are aware of fire dangers and all have fire extinguishers. She also said there had been no fatal house fire in the Amish community in Eau Claire in 40 years.

Conflicts with county officials over the building code have also grown along with the Amish population, while the Amish have faced similar problems in Minnesota and New York.

“This is harming the Amish community in the state of Wisconsin, not just in Eau Claire County but in the entire state,” said Ms. Bernier. “They’re really disheartened by this whole process.”

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