Amish outhouses issue in dispute


Amish farmer Andy Swartzentruber is determined to live the simple life of his forefathers, plowing his field with a horse-drawn tractor, getting around in a horse-drawn buggy and offering eggs for sale to help support his family.

But now he and a school elder in his Amish settlement are being compelled to defend their religious beliefs over an unlikely issue: sewage.

The two say that they will not comply with state code that governs how they handle waste from two outhouses at their community's schoolhouse. The men are members of the Swartzentruber Amish, one of the Christian group's most conservative wings. Their only Pennsylvania settlement is the one here, about 70 miles east of Pittsburgh.

Their refusal to budge has left officials in a quandary: They are not eager to throw the offenders in jail, but also believe they need to apply the law uniformly and prevent contamination of water supplies.

Waste from the outhouses has been collected in plastic buckets, then dumped onto fields. The county is demanding the Amish install a holding tank and contract with a certified sewage hauler for disposal.

"I'd rather go to jail, and abide by our religion," Swartzentruber, his face and clothes dusty, told The Associated Press recently, while taking a break from tilling a field.

A district judge in April found Swartzentruber, on whose land the outhouses sit, and school elder Sam Yoder, in violation of state sewage disposal law.

A Tuesday deadline to appeal the ruling, or face more than $500 each in fines, passed without any action on their part. District Judge Michael Zungali, who issued the original ruling, has notified them to appear at a June 12 "payment determination" hearing, his office said Wednesday.

Local officials say putting the men in jail won't solve anything.

"That's a huge sacrifice. I believe in their sincerity," said William Barbin, attorney for the Cambria County Sewage Enforcement Agency. "But I still have to find a way to solve the problem."

Zungali has said he hasn't decided what to do if the farmers don't comply &

but might impose community service instead of jail time.

"It's the judge's call," Barbin said Wednesday. "Whatever the judge says is fine with us."

Swartzentruber and Yoder represented themselves in court, where Yoder also said he would not pay the fine or appeal, county officials said. Because the Amish do not have phones in their homes, Yoder could not be reached for comment.

The Swartzentrubers relocated from Ohio about a decade ago, a relatively recent community compared with the much larger and more well-known Amish population in south-central Pennsylvania. Their settlement is home to just 30 families.

Permit disputes with the Amish are most common in areas where they are relative newcomers, but usually get resolved, said Herman Bontrager, an insurance company executive from Lancaster County who is a member of the National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom.

"The position of not wanting to abide by code and cooperate with legal authority, that's a pretty rare position," he said. "Most Amish find ways to do that."

The Swartzentrubers number only about 8,000, or fewer than 5 percent of the roughly 220,000 Amish in the U.S., according to Donald Kraybill, an Amish expert at Elizabethtown College. More than half of their settlements are in Ohio.

While all Amish shun the modern world, the Swartzentrubers are known for their tighter restrictions on technology, more severe limits to interaction with the outside world and more rigid notions of the separation of church and state, Kraybill said.

Yoder and five other Amish men laid out their beliefs in a handwritten letter to the sewage enforcement agency in January.

"We feel this sewage plan enforcement along with its standards is against our religious (beliefs)," they wrote. "Our forefathers and the church are conscientiously opposed to install the sewage method accordingly to the world's standards."

Other than the sewage issue, local officials say relations with the Swartzentrubers have generally gone well; occasionally, members have received citations for not having warning markers, like orange triangles, on their horse-drawn buggies.

Among the Amish, church guidelines can be interpreted differently from congregation to congregation. How they respond in disputes can also vary dramatically, from accommodation to outright resistance that leads to prison time, Kraybill said.

Kraybill said he was unaware of any similar dispute over sewage disposal in Ohio. In Morristown, N.Y., the Swartzentrubers are involved in a court fight over state building codes.

Andy Swartzentruber's troubles began in October 2006 when residents complained anonymously that the schoolhouse and outhouses were erected on his property without permits. Swartzentruber told sewage officials the waste was being dumped onto his fields, according to sewage agency documents.

County officials said they want to reach a compromise. If they choose, the Amish can propose building their own holding tank, as long as it can be shown to meet construction standards.

"People respect their religious beliefs," township supervisor Giles Dumm said. "Nobody's coming down on them about that."

But, he said, "it's not fair to the rest of the community if some people have to abide by the sewage laws and some don't."

Agency, state and township officials have met with Swartzentruber and other local Amish at least seven times since October to discuss permit requirements.

If the stalemate continues, Barbin said, other options include refiling criminal charges or seeking an injunction to prohibit use of the school or the outhouses.

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