Outhouse case raises religious freedom rights issues

HARRISBURG (AP) — An appeals court has ruled that Pennsylvania’s religious freedom law needs to be considered more fully in a case about a township’s efforts to make an Amish woman stop using outhouses and hook into its sewer system.

Commonwealth Court threw out an order that Iva Byler pay $100 a month toward fines levied by Sugar Grove Township, a community of 1,700 about 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of Erie.

The township has argued the woman did not show that connecting to a sewer system would be a major burden on her religious beliefs.

The opinion issued late last week said the trial judge ignored the state law that prohibits government burdens on exercising religious beliefs without compelling justification when the judge ruled that Byler’s religious protection concerns were overridden by the requirements of the state Sewage Facilities Act.

In the decade since the township authority put in a public sewer line, resistance to hooking into it by the local Amish community has generated several lawsuits. A township official referred questions to the solicitor, who did not return phone messages.

The Amish eschew many modern conveniences, including electricity, instead relying on such things as horse power as part of a strategy to maintain the focus on their families rather than connection to the outside world. The nearly 200 Amish families in Sugar Grove Township are Troyer Amish. They are considered so low-tech that even chain saws can be prohibited, according to the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College.

Byler’s lawyer wrote that the Sugar Grove Amish are worried they risk excommunication if they hook into public sewer, which requires electricity.

“What we have here is a situation, perhaps one of frustration, where the township has been unable to force the Old Order Amish to connect their homes to the sewer systems which requires an electric grinder pump,” wrote Byler’s lawyer, Bernard Hessley.

“The Old Order Amish will abandon their homes and move to another township in Pennsylvania or across the line into New York State rather than comply” with sewer connections that run contrary to their deeply held religious beliefs, Hessley said.

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