When Amish beliefs trump building regulations
Home-construction cases in Wisconsin and New York have fueled debate on faith and state.
TOWN OF FRANKLIN, Wis. - Daniel Borntreger's home looks like hundreds of other Wisconsin farmhouses: two-story A-frame, porch, clothes on the line.
But his home could cost him thousands of dollars in fines because the Amish farmer built the house himself, by Amish tradition but without a building permit.
His case is among at least 18 legal actions brought against Amish residents in Wisconsin and New York in the last year and a half for building without proper permits, according to court records, attorneys and advocates for the Amish.
The cases have sparked debates about where religion ends and government begins. Amish advocates - Amish won't defend themselves - argue that the Amish belief that they must live apart from the world trumps regulations.
"The permit itself might not be so bad, but to change your lifestyle to have to get one, that's against our convictions," Borntreger said as he sat in his kitchen with his wife, Ruth.
Local authorities say the Amish must obey the law.
"It's quite a problem when you got people next door required to get permits and the Amish don't have to get them," said Gary Olson, a county supervisor in central Wisconsin's Jackson County, where Borntreger lives.
The Amish emigrated from central Europe to Pennsylvania in the early 1700s. Also known as the "Plain People," many reject electricity, indoor plumbing and cars.
In Pennsylvania, home to a large Amish population, liberal-leaning congregations have lobbied successfully for exemptions in the state building code, including permission to forgo electricity and quality-graded lumber, said Frank Howe, chairman of the board of supervisors in Leacock Township in Lancaster County.
Officials try to keep the Amish informed about what they can and can't do, and most conform, Howe said. He said he didn't believe his board had ever taken an Amish resident to court over violations.
"You try to work with both sides," Howe said.
The Amish population has nearly doubled in the United States over the last 15 years, growing to 227,000 this year, according to estimates from Elizabethtown College's Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies.
As the Amish look for new farmland, conservative congregations have migrated into states that haven't seen them before, said Karen Johnson-Weiner, an Amish expert at the State University of New York at Potsdam.
That sets up conflict between building officials with little experience dealing with their beliefs and Amish who aren't familiar with the codes or don't want to compromise, Johnson-Weiner said.
Municipal attorneys in Hammond, a town of about 300 in Upstate New York, cited Joseph Swartzentruber and Henry Mast in August for building houses without a permit. That case is pending.
In Morristown, a town of about 450 just north of Hammond, town attorney Andrew Silver has brought 13 actions against the Amish for not abiding by building codes. They're pending, too.
Silver said only that the town was treating the Amish as it would any homeowner.
In Wisconsin, authorities in Black River Falls, a city of 3,600 people 130 miles northwest of Madison, have filed at least four cases against area Amish for permit violations.
One action ended in April when a judge fined Samuel S. Stoltzfus $9,450 for building a house and driveway without permits. In July the same judge fined Daniel Borntreger $10,600. Another pending action accuses Samuel F. Stolzfus of building two houses without permits.
Stoltzfus believed signing a permit would amount to lying because he wouldn't follow parts of the code that violate his religion, said Robert Greene, a lawyer with the National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom, which has intervened in his case.
Custom-built homes are allowed in Wisconsin as long as the plans meet code standards, but apparently the Amish don't understand that, said Paul Millis, the attorney suing the Amish in Jackson County. The Town of Albion, where Samuel F. Stolzfus lives, waived a requirement that permits be signed so the Amish could avoid violating their beliefs, but they still won't comply, he said.
Attorneys acting on behalf of the Amish argue they have a constitutional right to religious freedom. They don't have to conform to building regulations that require them to use architectural drawings, smoke detectors, quality-graded lumber and inspections, Steve Ballan, an assistant public defender assigned to the Amish in Morristown, wrote in court documents.
"They should be allowed to practice their religion and their religious traditions without interference from the government," he said.
That's a strong argument, said Douglas Laycock, a University of Michigan law professor. The government must show a strong reason why regulations outweigh religious freedoms, he said.
Building officials argue permits and codes ensure structural safety, but Amish homes aren't falling down, he said.