Amish Avoid Jail In Buggy Lights Case. But The “Solution” Might Only Escalate Things

Twenty-six members of the Amish community appeared in Ashland Municipal Court Friday to address fines levied against them for refusing to comply with Ohio’s new law requiring flashing lights on animal-drawn vehicles. At a hearing in January, the judge suggested that jail time would be coming in April if the fines were not paid.

Judge John L. Good questions one of the Amish about paying the fines. Screenshot: WKYC

Predictably, the Amish involved have not changed their stance. And it looks like no one has stepped in from outside to handle the fines (which someone had done for two Amishmen in January). But – the Amish are not going to jail, either. However, the “solution” the judge has arrived at only raises questions. From WKYC:

All 26 members took the stand to contest that they could not and would not pay the fine because it is against their religion. So Judge Good gave them the option of either putting a lien on their properties or performing community service instead.

“Are you going to pay your fines?” Judge Good asked one of the Amish members.

“No, not at this point,” was the response.

“Are you ever going to pay them?” Good asked back.

“Not that I know of.”

“Could you pay them if you had the income or funds?” Good continued.

“Yup, but I can’t pay them for religious reasons.”

The fines range from $50 to $150 each, given the number of citations issued for the traffic violation. Some of the Amish community members who appeared in court on Friday have been cited multiple times.

Ohio State Highway Patrol (OSP) troopers say some elders and bishops in the Amish community are resentful of the new law and are urging members not to obey it.

In Ashland Municipal Court. Screenshot: WKYC

So what will happen now that Judge Good has ruled out jail time but Amish refuse to pay the fines? The judge has said that he will place liens on their property. Here’s why he decided against jailing them, from the Ashland Source:

On Thursday, Good told them that while they may prefer jail, an Ohio Supreme Court case prohibits him jailing defendants that refuse to pay fines for non-jailable offenses.

“I’ve tried to be patient, but now it’s to the point where you have pushed the court up against the wall to where I have to decide that I’m either gonna let this go or I’m gonna do everything in my power to affect the fines and costs like I would in any other case involving any other citizen in Ashland County,” he said.

In lieu of jail time, Good could put warrant blocks on their driver’s licenses or send their fines out to collection, but he doubted the Amish “would care about that,” he said.

He could also keep holding hearings every 30 days until they pay. Instead, he told them he will place a judgement lien on their real estate if they haven’t paid their fines or done community service before their next hearings in May.

“That’s an option that’s very attractive to the court and I’ve decided I’m gonna pursue it,” he said.

The liens would accrue interest until the fines are paid off, Good added.

I do have some empathy for the judges in these cases, working with the legal options they have before them. I think Judge Good is probably doing the best he can within the bounds of the law.

Good didn’t want to give jail time, citing Ohio Supreme Court precedent. That would also have the potential to create some very bad nationwide PR (as in a similar case in 2011 in Kentucky).

An Amishman walks to buggies parked outside the court. Screenshot: WKYC

He arrived at applying a lever on their real estate, which on the one hand might be have the most potential to force the Amish to pay the fines (or have them paid by a third party). Property in the form of land and the home you live in arguably holds more importance for the Amish than for most non-Amish.

It’s where Amish families make a living and spend most of their time in most cases (especially with plainer Amish), tending the soil, or in family-oriented workshops. And it often carries the weight of history in that farms stay in families, passing down the generations.

Kicking the can?

However, and I might be missing something, but I’m not sure this will resolve anything, and may even make things worse.

Because, on the other hand, it also feels like a kicking-the-can-down-the-road measure.

Of course the interest accruing on them would add pressure on the Amish to take care of the fines. A lien on property can create issues when trying to sell the home. It can also allow the lien holder to foreclose on the home. So that would create problems for any Amish who wish to move or sell a house to a relative or community members – or potentially put them in danger of losing their homes altogether.

But if the only way to remove them from the property is to pay the fine, why would the Amish who are taking this stand now be of a different mind in future? Amish from this group have a history of pushing back against change, especially that imposed from the outside. Tradition and “the way things have been done” counts for a lot in this particular Amish group. Here’s the text of a letter written by one of the Amishmen illustrating that, which the judge read aloud:

“The reason I did not pay my fine is for religious reasons. (In) the Ten Commandments verses it says we must honor thy father and thy mother. My dad is 81 years old, and remembers, 60-plus years ago, they had a similar case and the elders thought it too worldly, and we still feel the same way.”

At least one of the buggies displays an additional reflective square and PVC pipe section on wheel for added visibility. Screenshot: WKYC

Additionally, the comment about the bishops being “resentful” in the first article is no surprise, and will only make things harder to resolve this way (maybe the lawmakers should have taken this group’s history more into account…but I’m a broken record on that).

So I don’t think this really solves anything. And it might only escalate things. What happens when one of these Amish people wants to do sell their property? Good suggested that if the Amish had a constitutional objection to the law, then they should mount a legal challenge against it.

An out?

Now, there is one path presented here that might be palatable to Amish (at least in handling the matter of the current fines) – the alternative “community service” option mentioned in the second article. Honestly I’m not sure how these Amish might view that. Community service on the one hand might appeal to some Amish in that it is providing some sort of good for others. But – does performing community service in lieu of paying a fine for a violation equate to admitting guilt?

It also might depend on what type of community service is permitted in this program. If it means traveling to cities to clean up parks or working somewhere outside of their own environment, that might be a non-starter. But perhaps there are forms of community service that would be both accessible, and acceptable to this plainest group of Amish (which it should be noted does not hire drivers).

But again, that would depend on the community not seeing performing community service as tantamount to admitting guilt. That’s at least part of what is preventing them paying they fines, which they all could do from a financial standpoint.

That all noted, it’s not like it would solve things long-term. In all likelihood, the Amish in this case are not going to put lights on their buggies and start complying with the law. Presumably they will just continue to be cited in future, and this process will repeat itself. So I’m not seeing how this is headed towards any sort of long-term resolution right now.

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20 Comments

  1. Walter Boomsma

    Excellent Analysis

    I agree with the “kicking the can down the road” observation. To the judge’s credit, he appears to understand and emphasize with the Amish and their thinking. He’s forced to follow the law. The ultimate issue isn’t the flashing lights or the fines or even the potential jail time. The issue is at least twofold. First, how much tolerance are “we” willing to grant others with what might be considered minority religious beliefs? Second, how skilled are “we” at finding a middle ground?

    I think it would be more than mildly interesting to know how many conversations the sponsors of this new law had with the bishops and Amish impacted before passing it. The fact that the bishops are “resentful” might be a hint.

    In a country that currently seems obsessed with polarization and divisiveness, there are no big surprises here. Most politicians are more focused on who to keep happy than actually solving society’s challenges.

  2. Cynthia

    Buggy Lights

    I’m all for the Amish and their beliefs. My thoughts about the flashing lights on buggies is this: Yes 60+ years ago lights on buggies probably weren’t a necessity back then. Now there are far more cars on the roads and the lights could be a matter of saving lives by warning drivers of buggies ahead to slow down. It could mean a lot less accidents. I too believe in God’s will but I also believe we too need to take responsibility to keep us and our loved ones as safe as possible. There are many times I wish I had been born into the Amish faith. You are very hard working and you all stick together, something that’s not seen as often in the English world as it should.

  3. Lucia

    When in Rome...

    If they are using roads that are maintained by the municipality they are subject to the same laws.therefore I believe that the judge is correct. It’s difficult to see their buggy at night and can cause a accidents.its a matter of public safety. When in Rome do as the Romans do . when on the roads do as all the other drivers do.

  4. Larry Kowalski

    When

    Well, what did you expect the country has gone communism. I told you when our dad’s left the old stair,they would follow us. Peace to the mighty Men of Ford to, it’s no good either. My land was Green did you read red? Ford won Tommy. Tell him your axle and your transmission went out over there. Goo bye.

    1. Buggy lights violators

      Mr. Kowalski: What exactly does your little comment mean? It’s a very strange one!

  5. FRANK V VATTELANA

    Make the bishop pay for the fines

    Since the bishop did not allow it make him pay for all the fines! The Amish in my area thinks that this is foolishness on the Bishop’s part.

  6. Steven B Edwards

    Impound the offending vehicle and horse

    On the second offense, impound the vehicle (buggy) and board the horse, at the offender’s accruing expense, until paid or the animal dies. Employ accruing property liens as necessary.

    . . . Giving the Amish, or any religion, deference over the rule of law is a violation of the First Amendment.

  7. John Q Pubic2

    I’m all for the Amish riding in buggies if that’s what they feel God wants them to do. And on their private property they can do anything they want, provided it’s legal. But the roads are public space, and your right to ride in a buggy does not trump safety precautions for yourselves and fellow travelers, most of whom are motorists. Having lived near the Seymour area for years, I lost a lot of respect for the enforcement of the Ordnung. Plenty of people cheating using cell phones, radios and other gadgets, but they (I know, it’s a different group) chose to fall on the sword over a blinking light on the back of the buggy. Time to get rational, folks.

  8. Central Virginian

    Judge's Purview & Kicking the Can..

    The judge & court system don’t have the authority to do anything towards resolving the overall problem. The legislative body would need to make or change pertaining laws to require a solution that the Amish will follow.

    Community service in lieu of jail time or fines won’t solve anything because the Amish who object to following the law will get cited again and again.

    The Amish might be overlooking the biblical admonition in Romans 13 to obey the civil authorities, unless there’s a conflict with God’s law. The reference to the 5th commandment given in court seems like a bit of a stretch. Nevertheless, it appears to be their sincerely held religious belief.

    1. Buggy lights violators

      This isn’t about God anymore. This is about foolish pride and sticking it to the English! Taking safety measures for the better of the community is not against God’s law by any stretch of any misinterpretation of the Bible! This isn’t about free speech or freedom of religion any more than it is against God’s law! Romanticizing scofflaw Amish for flouting the law of the land they live in is ridiculous!

      1. Kal

        I agree with you, Janice. 100%.

  9. Mike

    Fines

    Could the general public find the names of these Amish and pay the fines for them. Would they accept that?

    1. Someone apparently did that for two of the Amishmen back in January. I don’t think they would ever seek that out, but if it happened then I think they would simply accept it. Especially if it were just done without consulting them.

  10. Strikerliker

    Possible amendment

    Perhaps an amendment could be added to the law stating that if the buggy does not display flashing lights, then it must be accompanied by a motorized vehicle in front and in back of the buggy with their lights flashing.

  11. George

    Bible study time

    Romans 13:1-7
    Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those who exist are established by God. Therefore, WHOEVER RESISTS AUTHORITIES HAS OPPOSED THE ORDINANCE OF GOD and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause to fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise …

    Titus 3:1, 1 Peter 2:13-14, Luke 20:25, 1 Peter 5:5

    Our governing authorities (not our parents) have put the flashing lights law in place for driver safety, including the Amish, thus we must obey our governing authorities, this honors God. (Also a Ten Commandment)

    My suggestion: put a “tire boot” on the buggy, until fines are paid and vehicle is up to diving safety standards.

  12. Lorna Klotzbach

    Amish avoid jail time....

    Before any more hardening of positions takes place, it would be good if lawmakers and Amish elders in the church districts that oppose this law would sit down together and seek a compromise. A good compromise would promote safety and would promote the honoring of a minority group to practice their religion. As a automobile driver in various Amish communities, I appreciate the flashing lights. I dread ever being the one to run up on an unlit buggy. However, I realize that their are other things that can be done to make buggies visible in the dark that could/would become just as recognizable as flashing lights. In addition, patience, sobriety, undistracted driving could/would cut down on many vehicle-buggy accidents and the tragedies they cause. The callousness of the lawmakers in their orginial action is what has led to this connundrum now. Communicate and compromise!

  13. Kensi Blonde

    Go to Jail

    Put them in jail. So incredibly irresponsible! It’s one thing if you want to kill yourselves, or even your own children as witnesses in the accident in this same blog, but you don’t get to kill me and my children too because you don’t want to be seen on the road! All for some fantasy mumbo jumbo about living in the last century.

  14. Lance

    Virtually every post by Eric that involves conservative Amish refusal to install lights and/or SMV symbols on buggies has resulted in someone saying in the comments that those Amish are disobeying Romans 13. I usually frown as I lived with an Amish community for 2.5 years that did not have SMV signs, nor electric lights of any kind and I never felt like I was disobeying God because of this, nor disobeying that very scripture. Why?? Because I was obeying the authorities of the church. I wasn’t worried about the gov’t authorities as much as the authorities of the church I was part of. I did not worry either that there were other Amish with different opinions on the matter.

    This topic can be taken to the extreme. At what point do you finally say that those authorities are not to be obeyed? When they ban Christianity all together? When they teach satanism in the schools and ban all home schooling and parochial schools?? What is too far? Where do we draw the line? These Amish will not put what the rest of the world call ‘safety devices’ on their property because they believe that is interfering with God’s plan. The Amish see this as God’s Providentialism vs man’s ideas even if they are not able to put that into those words.

    I have talked a lot about this with my Amish friends of which there are many around the country. These are all Amish without SMV symbols or lights on their buggies. I can tell you they will not ever be installing them, even if they write and enforce laws to require them. They are all also quite aware of this situation and are monitoring it for what it means for their futures.

    I think that the difference of opinion here is who we are calling the authorities in Romans 13. I think most see them as the local, state, fed’l and sometimes int’l gov’t officials while these conservative Amish are looking at only their district’s ministers. I’m in the later camp.

  15. Safety For All

    We live near many Amish communities. When a new community was established in our area, I called the county to have buggy signs put up. Whenever I’m driving where I know buggies might be, I slow down and am more aware and alert, especially in the Seymour, MO, and Bowling Green, MO, communities with hills and curves. I would be devastated if I hit a buggy with one person or, a family inside. They’re not just living unto themselves; when they are on the highway or shoulder of the road, they affect others’ lives, too. I understand the complexity of religious freedom and their long-standing beliefs.