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For Andy Miller, the issue is as clear as the state laws are to Mr. Crislip. “They’re enforcing stuff that’s against our religion,” Mr. Miller said.
Dressing in plain, dark clothing — with the men in straw hats, the women in bonnets — and shunning modern conveniences like cars, telephones and running water in their homes, the Swartzentruber Amish appear in many ways to resemble the larger, better known Old Order Amish. The Swartzentruber Amish split from the Old Order, fearing that it was becoming too modern. They split in 1913 in Holmes County, Ohio, said Donald B. Kraybill, a professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania and an expert on Amish culture.
The Swartzentruber Amish in Nicktown, the only known branch in Pennsylvania, arrived from Wayne County, Ohio — which neighbors Holmes County — about a dozen years ago to farm the area’s rolling hills.
“The Swartzentrubers say their whole way of life is religious,” Dr. Kraybill said.
In 2003, Nicktown’s Swartzentruber families successfully appealed an order to pay fines levied by the county after they refused to put orange reflective triangles on their horse-drawn buggies. They said the brightly colored triangles, intended to make them more visible to cars along rural roads, were too garish for their faith.
Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, they were allowed to mount less gaudy gray tape.
“The fact that this group was successful in that challenge,” Dr. Kraybill said, “may have encouraged them to challenge the septic issues.”
The septic fight began in late 2006 when the executive director of the Cambria County Sewage Enforcement Agency, Deborah Sedlmeyer, found that human waste at the schoolhouse, where 18 children were taught, was being collected in a 50-gallon metal drum under an outhouse
“It was overrunning the barrels,” Ms. Sedlmeyer said, and it was being dumped, untreated, onto nearby fields.
The Swartzentrubers agreed to improve the outhouses, adding a larger, 250-gallon holding tank and treating the waste with lime.
But they refused to follow state law, which called for installing a 5,000-gallon precast concrete tank and allowing someone certified by the state to use an electronic meter to test the waste’s chemical content.
The elders had determined that use of a precast tank was too modern — they want to make the vat themselves — as was the electronic meter and the requirement that they obtain certification to do the testing.
“These folks don’t couch their words,” Mr. Crislip said. “They tell the truth and deal with the consequences. They were the most amicable meetings we’ve ever had. But they’d tell us they just weren’t going to do it.”
In response, Judge Norman Krumenacker of Cambria County ordered Andy Swartzentruber to jail.
“He thinks he’s doing the right thing,” Joely Swartzentruber, 25, said of his father. “But his nerves didn’t take to jail. They had to put him on pills to sleep.”
After Ms. Sedlmeyer found that conditions at Joely Swartzentruber and John Miller’s residential outhouses were similar — and their owners also refused to comply with state ordinances — Judge Krumenacker ordered the two homes and their barns padlocked on May 15, forcing the families to move in with relatives.
Last Monday, the judge allowed the barns to be unlocked so the families could harvest and store their hay, but they were not allowed to return home.
“We can make do right now,” said Susan Miller, 39, John’s wife. “I’m not upset, but it makes me sad. We own a farm, and we can’t live there.”
But for many of the area’s non-Amish residents, the impasse represents a test case over whether laws will be bent in the face of religious principles.
“The rules should be the same for everybody,” said Bernard E. Dumm, who owns D&D Wood Sales, next to the farm of another Swartzentruber Amish elder, Sam Yoder. “Besides, it’s not about religion. They just don’t want to follow the rules.”
“If you don’t do the correct sewage things,” Mr. Dumm added, “we all get sick.”
Told of his neighbor’s feelings, Mr. Yoder, 54, was polite but resolute. “You hear people say that we have to live the way they do, but we can’t do that,” he said. “Our forefathers, that’s why they came across the sea, for religious freedom.”Continue reading the main story