An eight-year conflict has left a Pennsylvania family struggling to practice their faith against a sewage ordinance in Sugar Grove Township, Pennsylvania. Joseph and Barbara Yoder, an Old Order Amish family, have been ordered by local courts to install an electric pump in their outhouse, an action that directly contradicts their religious beliefs.
Court documents from the original 2016 suit indicate that the Yoder family had previously been exempted in 2008 from the city’s demand that they connect their outhouse to the local power grid if the family paid both the connection fees and sewer charges along with monthly charges. Although the family kept up with these demands, in December 2010 the sewage authority filed a municipal claim against the Yoder’s, allegedly for “nonpayment of sewer charges.”
The sewage authority requested that the city force the Yoders from their property so the authority could connect their property to the electrical grid. Although the court ruled in favor of the authority, they rejected this last request, instead permitting the authority to “enter the property and connect the dwelling to the [Authority’s] sewage system, at [Owner’s] expense.”
The Yoders’ appeal was decided on Jan. 5, 2018, once again in favor of the city. In the appeal, the Yoders argued under the free exercise clause analysis that the authority had failed to demonstrate that the electrical pump was the least intrusive means of a sewer connection. The court ruled that because the Yoder’s had previously used telephones and ridden in motor vehicles when necessary, so the harm caused by the use of an electric grinder pump would, at most, be “moderate.” The court also stated that the Yoders’ failure to provide an alternative for the electric pump meant that they had failed to prove a clear right to relief.
The decision has caused concern over the civil rights of the Yoder family. According to PennLive, Judge Patricia A. McCullough, the differing voice in the 2-1 split panel of judges hearing the appeal, stated in her dissenting opinion her belief that the Yoder’s, “are being denied their rights to religious freedom.” American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) senior staff attorney Sara Rose was quoted in USA Today as saying that the court placed an undue burden on the Yoder family, stating “They didn’t consider the other ways that the government could have achieved its ends.”
Amish beliefs frequently clash with contemporary mandated requirements for health and safety. Amish families in both New York and Wisconsin have engaged in legal battles regarding the placement of electric smoke detectors in their homes. While the individuals in Wisconsin were able to build their homes without fire detectors or indoor plumbing, the compromise reached by parties in New York required the fire detectors to be installed for inspection, with many Amish families throwing the device away after the inspection was over. In Kentucky, a group of Amish men were jailed following their refusal to put a neon orange sign on the back of their buggies to alert drivers to their presence at night, taking photographs of the men to use for mugshots.
The Yoder family’s next steps are still unclear, but the impact of this decision has been felt by the religious liberty community, and particularly among the deeply devout Amish community. Steve Nolt, the senior scholar at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, expressed concern regarding the ruling. “Practicing religion is not just about going to church on Sunday mornings. For the Amish, it’s their entire way of life.”
Case: Yoder v. Sugar Grove Sewage Authority Appeal, No. 1927 C.D. 2016, Pa. Commw. Ct. (1/8/2018)
Kelly Larios is a History major studying at La Sierra University. She hopes to become an expert in international law, expanding human rights in third-world countries.
Photograph: “Two Cultures Waiting for a Green Light” – Tony Fischer – CC by 2.0