Amish man jailed over toilet theology

Wednesday 18 March 2009 11:45
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A western Pennsylvania Amish farmer has been sentenced to 90 days in jail after refusing to bring a pair of outhouses into compliance with state sewage laws.

Andy Swartzentruber, of Ebensburg, cited his conservative religious beliefs in refusing to abide by a court order to make the privies used by schoolchildren compliant and pay a $500 fine.

Cambria County Judge Norman Krumenacker said he respected the Amish's religious beliefs but had no choice but to sentence Swartzentruber to jail and fine him $1,000 for being in contempt of court.

"Quite frankly, this is not a religious issue," Krumenacker said.

He also ordered the Amish school and outhouses on Swartzentruber's former property padlocked. About 18 children attend the school.

Deborah Sedlmeyer, executive director of the Cambria County Sewage Enforcement Agency, said her office just wanted compliance, not to see Swartzentruber sent to jail.

"It's a victory for the environment and public health; it was never an issue of religious freedom," she said outside the courtroom.

Swartzentruber said little when brought before the judge. About a dozen other Amish men and women sat in the gallery.

"I will take a stand for my religion," he said in a low voice. "If I don't, it could destroy the whole church group."

A district judge last year convicted Swartzentruber and church elder Sam Yoder of one count each of failing to obtain a proper permit and discharging untreated sewage into the ground.

Waste from the outhouses had been collected in plastic buckets, then dumped onto fields. Citing state regulations, the county had demanded the Amish install a holding tank and contract with a certified sewage hauler for disposal.

The district judge last year ordered the defendants to spend 90 days in jail after they failed to comply with an initial sentence of community service. The men then appealed.

Krumenacker upheld the conviction against Swartzentruber at another hearing in October, ordering compliance within 30 days. The case against Yoder was dismissed after Krumenacker ruled the responsibility ultimately fell on Swartzentruber, who owned the Barr Township property at the time of the complaint.

Swartzentruber still did not comply, and another hearing was held in January giving the Amish another 30 days.

Yesterday's hearing gave the Amish a last opportunity to abide by the regulations. Jim Stratton, the Amish's court-appointed defence attorney, said the court had given his clients ample opportunity to try and negotiate a compromise.

The privies cited in the initial violation have been torn down, but new ones erected last September still don't follow regulations, county sewage officials said.

Yoder testified yesterday his community was willing to pay for a permit, but wouldn't allow soil samples to be taken by the county or a certified scientist, which is required for a permit. He cited religious beliefs as a reason for not permitting the soil samples but didn't elaborate.

The defendant is a member of the Swartzentruber Amish sect. While all Amish shun the modern world, the Swartzentrubers are known for their more severe restrictions on technology and interaction with the outside world.

In the courtroom after Swartzentruber was taken away, Yoder said his community still had no intention of complying.

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