In August we learned that a Michigan county had deemed Amish homes “unfit for human habitation.”

The reason? Outhouses and lack of running water, which created what were described as unsafe living conditions.

Photo by Mary Speer/WTOL

Eviction loomed, and jail and fines were possible. There was even a threat of the homes being bulldozed.

Now the Lenawee County Health Department has been sued by a team of attorneys representing 14 Amish households, as reported in the Toledo Blade.

The purpose is “to halt Lenawee County officials from demolishing Amish family homes.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan is helping a private Ohio law firm in this case. They assert discrimination by the health department towards the Amish.

Amish did not want to sue at first. They changed their minds when they realized their homes might be destroyed. The lawyers here are working pro bono.

Family home of Joseph and Rosa Graber, ACLU clients, in Morenci, MI. Photo by ACLU

We hear from an older Amish couple on how the experience has affected them:

The husband and wife that agreed to speak on the record, ages 68 and 66, respectively, said they moved to rural Lenawee County in 2016 because they needed more living space for their six children, ages 23 to 46, and their families. The couple, married in 1972, said it has 30-plus grandchildren.

“If we allow modernization to come in, we won’t be holding up our religion,” the husband said, explaining that he doesn’t want God thinking less of them.

He said he tried to get an explanation from county officials.

“I asked them if they had no respect for religion,” he said. “We’d like to live a plain life and be left alone by the health department. I don’t think we’re harming anybody.”

The man said the ordeal has woken him up at night. His wife said she and other Amish residents are scared now when they see automobiles drive up on their property, fearing it is a county official.

Richard Schulte, of the Ohio law firm, worked on a similar case in Ohio. That one was resolved when Amish agreed to treat their waste before using it as fertilizer.

Schulte considers this case and the County’s actions “much more aggressive and offensive.”

Outhouse in the community. Photo by Spencer Durham, The Daily Telegram

Schulte believes the local water is safe, and that he did not know if the county had tested groundwater.

Installing modern septic systems would require electricity and technology which these Amish find objectionable.

Is this a danger?

Schulte and the ACLU argue that this is a key case in the matters of religious freedom and fair housing.

On the other hand, the County in a release said this is a public health issue, and that it has a responsibility to protect all residents of the county:

“The requirements for these property owners are the same requirements that apply to all other residents of Lenawee County,” the release states. “The requirements of the Lenawee County Environmental Health Code, to supply clean water and properly dispose of sewage, are in place to protect the public health of all citizens of Lenawee County.”

The issue arose several years ago following complaints by residents over the outhouses.

Officials stated that they created a hazard both for those living on the properties, and for others on nearby properties.

Is this a real threat? And if so how great is it?

I haven’t seen much analysis of that, and if Schulte is correct, no water testing has been done to assess conditions.

For what it’s worth, a commenter on the article suggests that when properly constructed, an outhouse system is not a danger:

Outhouses are acceptable solutions in Alaska, rural areas, and other countries. As long as the hole is dug deep enough and is away from wells, etc., it is not a problem.

I think this matter ought to hinge on that question – is there a danger created by this, and is the risk unacceptable?

It’s also possible the outhouse issue is simply the chosen battle point for residents who have other issues with the Amish in the county.

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