Amish smoke detector dispute resolved

News came earlier this week that the long-running dispute between Amish and authorities in Morristown, New York, has come to an end.  You might remember a post last spring on the Amish smoke alarm issue; if you viewed the PBS documentary The Amish you would have seen this case discussed.

Amish Smoke DetectorTo review, Amish had refused to follow local building codes (updated by the town in 2006), arguing that they conflicted with their religious beliefs.  Most memorably, the Amish balked at the installation of household smoke detectors.  But they also found other regulations problematic, covering everything from the foundation to the roof.  Here’s Karen Johnson-Weiner explaining the smoke alarm issue (taken from the transcript of The Amish film):

Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, Anthropologist: There are a number of aspects of the building code that are problematic. The need for smoke detectors and now carbon monoxide detectors. That’s putting your faith in a manmade device instead of God. What God wants to happen will happen. The Amish are building their homes according to way their Ordnung says they have to build. If, heaven forbid, a fire comes, sweeps through the house and something terrible happens, the child will be in a better place, the people will be in a better place, they’ll be with God. Theirs is not an intellectual faith; it’s a lived faith. In a very real way because everything they do is guided by their Ordnung, by their beliefs. In a way they’re always in church.

Both sides have conceded points in the dispute.  Though not on every issue.  I found the following bit amusing:

On the thorniest issue — smoke detectors — neither side caved. The town’s code inspector will install detectors before giving homes a final approval, but whether they remain is up to the homeowners, as it is in any home.

Any Morristownians in the market for a smoke detector, barely used? I have a hunch there will be a few soon available (if they don’t land in the junk pile behind the barn first).

As one of the principals in the case pointed out, this resolution means both parties leave satisfied, with no one having to go to jail.  That of course is in contrast to what went on in Kentucky in 2011-2012, when numerous Swartzentruber Amish ended up in prison in the dispute over the SMV triangle.

“This is a really good settlement. It means the Amish are not going to jail and they can continue living in Morristown,” Lori Windham, an attorney for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which helped represent the Amish, said Monday in announcing the settlement. “It shows how cities and small religious communities can work together and cooperate to meet everyone’s goals.”

That same sort of cooperation will be needed as Amish settle new areas in the years to come.

Smoke alarm photo: Kendrick Hang/flickr

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    1. Rich S

      Just plain cussedness?

      Although I like Karen J-W’s explanation, in my disenchanted moments, I wonder if they may simply be more hott-keppich (stubborn) than principled when it comes to things like SMVs or smoke detectors. Another thorny issue in places has been a requirement for hunters to wear orange in the woods. And yet I hear rumored that some Amish hunters are not averse to hunting without a license or violating other “man made” game laws. “Who are these people telling us what to do. We never had to wear bright colors or use fanny flags when we were young.” Help me if I’m wrong, but that’s my two-cents on a rainy, gray morning.

      1. Leon Moyer

        two masters impossible

        Most professing Christians fail to recognize that Jesus taught that no man can serve two masters. This is why Peter proclaimed in Acts 5:29 that we must serve God rather than men when their is a conflict between what God has commanded and the changeable laws of governmental bodies. So the Amish are serving God by faith, and if this was the land of the free, gov’t (which is other people who believe in controlling their fellow man by voting) would not even try and tell us how to live our private lives, as long as we take responsibility for our actions, as the Amish do. Why isn’t provision made to opt out of fire and ambulance districts for people who do not want smoke alarms–they can fight their own fires or lose their possessions, that is the meaning of freedom!!

        1. Amanda

          Everything is man made including God.

          Jesus said you can’t serve two Masters. Its either the Government and its man made constitution or its God and the man-made bible. I’m opposed to both. If God showed up to speak for himself, I’d be down. I just don’t trust middle men. Religion is nothing BUT middle men. That aside. If you plan to hunt on shared lands, don’t be a goon, get a license, wear the damn PPE.

    2. Kim in NY

      comment on" Amish smoke detector dispute resolved"

      Are there any attorneys on this blog? This dispute reminds me of some disputes over land and taxes between the government and various Indian tribes, and I know the American Indian tribes are like sovereign nations living within our borders on many of their legal issues. Is that what the Amish are like? A sovereign nation within our borders? Otherwise how can you pick and choose which laws to obey and which not to obey? The average American citizen wouldn’t get far with that defense in court, unless they are wearing black pants and a blue shirt…..Any thoughts, fellow bloggers?

      1. john a. powell

        smoke detectors bruhaha

        Yes, I think some Christians use the seperation of church and state and follow God over man to disobey the laws of the land..there is the case of the mennonite man that helped a lady violate federal laws concerning kidnapping of a’s involved but they broke the law KNOWINGLY and should feel the full weight of the law as decided by a jury…I attend a Mennonite church and I am not sure the church didn’t make a mistake in recieving me and I in is under review as we speak! To God be theglory, great things He has done!

      2. Ed

        Kim, NO, the Amish are NOT exempt from any laws and they pay taxes like any other citizens. In fact, the Amish scrupulously obey laws, and when a new law or regulation is passed that they cannot reconcile with their beliefs, they are willing to accept jail or physically relocate until said law is changed.

        This particular case had several issues, including new regulations and a codes enforcement officer posting anti Amish comments online. I’m glad it has been resolved.

        Although I disagree with these Amish on the smoke detector issue, I think we all can agree that what you do to or in the inside of your house is your business alone and not a legitimate area for local government to regulate.

        1. OldKat

          Ed, I'm with you 100%

          Your last paragraph is dead on. It is not the business of the city, the county, the state or anyone else to tell me what I must or must not have INSIDE MY home.

          Make no mistake about it; we have smoke detectors, heat detectors and carbon monoxide detectors in our home. We also have working fire extinguishers and escape ladders for the second floor bedrooms. Those are all things that we CHOSE to install. Guess what? They would be there even if the geniuses at the local gestapo said that we COULDN’T have them.

          It always amazes me to see the people who will state that they have a “great admiration for the Amish and their beliefs”, then the first time there is a controversy that pits a local or state agency against the Amish they come out with a plethora of reasons that the Amish are wrong … “in this case”. Perhaps they should go back and read the Amish argument against complying. Either you get it, or you don’t.

          1. Nitrous

            Laws don't stop at your door step.

            The idea that the decision to follow state/federal or even local laws is one of personal belief is nonsense.
            There are many examples where local by laws that seem to be solely for YOUR protection actually are for protection of society as a whole.

            If you have children, do they not require more than “your good sense” to protect them? By the same argument, should someone else’s child come to harm because they “choose” to not comply with smoke detector by laws?

            So, lets say you exercise what you believe is your “right” to not install smoke/CO detectors in your house and you and your family suffer harm as a result? Who pays to treat you? Who supports your family and pays the medical bills? When your estate runs out of money, what then? How do you feel about county taxes taking up the slack? No? You’ll not take welfare? Ok. How do you feel about euthanasia? Who will pay to have your brain damaged family put down? What about your children?

            You may have a God given right to make stupid decisions that ONLY affect you, and only you. Trouble is, most stupid people don’t make stupid decisions that have no impact on others.

            For someone who represents himself as being about personal choice and responsibility, you seem to be willing to ignore the bigger picture, even when it so clearly shirks your societal responsibilities.

            Please don’t try and hide stupidity behind a false sense of entitlement. If you can’t see the bigger picture, society will do its best to help you out until you do! 😉


    3. Diane Paulson

      Cost to the Taxpayers

      Seems the Amish don’t refuse the help given them from the tax supported fire departments when their houses catch fire from a lack of lightening rods or smoke detectors. The Bible says we are to obey the governing authorities and to render unto Caesar. Their legalism is getting in the way here. Should they have the right to disobey the law when it uses the tax money of those who do? Hmm. This is where religious tradition vs. genuine Christianity crosses. Certainly they have the right to live by choice, but when it takes advantage of others, well, follow that one out. It’s a bit early for me.

      1. john a. powell

        smoke detector comments

        se my post and carolyn B is right on! God reigns..when He comes…ALL will be made straight..get right with God before too late! Blessings to all who read and heed!

      2. OldKat

        Are you sure?

        Are you sure that they live in an area where taxes are used to support their fire department? I have no idea how they do things in Morristown , NY … and maybe you do. That said it is not a given that all fire departments are funded with taxes; ad valorem or otherwise.

        I have not lived in an area that does that in over well over 30 years now. Our local fire department works closely with the city and the county, but receives NO funding from either. They will receive loans in the form of bonds that the city sells to buy capital items, but those loans are retired by the FD doing fund raisers, etc to pay off the debt. That is it, that is close as they get to taking tax dollars. It is an all volunteer department (and a very good, well equipped one at that)that is fully funded by donations; as are nearly 100% of the fire departments in other nearby communities. We may be the only area in the country that does it this way, but I suspect that we are not.

    4. Eli S.

      Reality from the other side

      As with any issue, there are always a variety opinions among the Amish. Some are genuinely concerned about “drift”, that is acceptance of new things and ideas that may erode old values. Others may covertly say that LED flashlights have not caused damage.
      The structure of the community demands complete obedience, so it follows that some members are simply being “hott-keppich” while others are afraid of the internal consequences of drift. Whatever the motive, the result is a community that gets its way because of solidarity.
      Also remember this; that if one community accepts such a thing, all their communities across the nation will have a say. To accept smoke detectors would evidently not fly. As Amish, we had no openly expressed personal opinion.

    5. Roberta

      Do “houses catch fire from a lack of … smoke detectors” ?? None of us had smoke detectors in our houses up until a few years ago. In two different places I have lived I know of English who bought smoke detectors and showed them, still in the box, to the codes officer and never installed them. It seems like codes officers only ask to see them ACTUALLY INSTALLED in Amish houses.

    6. Alice Mary

      "Man's" rules on both sides...

      Roberta, in my area, houses aren’t approved for occupancy without installed, working smoke detectors. In some nearby communities, you also need residential sprinkler systems. Of course the smoke detectors don’t stop fires, but the lives of the people in the home may be saved and the fire dept. called earlier to help put out the fire. I don’t doubt that we’re much more aware of fire safety in this area due to the historic Chicago Fire of October, 1871. (A similar, devastating fire occurred in Wisconsin in the same time period.)

      That said, if some Amish truly believe that God will decide what happens and they don’t need to do anything to protect themselves, family, neighbors, then why teach children to look both ways when crossing a road, or treat any kind of illness with anything BUT “faith”?

      I agree with Kim about “sovereign nation” status—heck, there are some STATES that would like just that! And Diane P.’s comment on the Amish not refusing tax supported fire dept. help in putting out Amish house/barn fires is certainly true, too.

      No matter Amish or English, no matter what (or no) religion, some people will always use some sort of excuse to get their own way—the bible can be interpreted various ways, but in the end, it’s people who “wrote” and “interpreted” the rules in the first place. I personally think God gave us common sense for a reason. Whether we (or our religion of choice or birth) choose to use it is up to the people themselves.

      Alice Mary

      1. Kim in NY

        I could not agree with you more, Alice Mary.
        Funny you mentioned the Chicago Fire–I grew up in a suburb (Oak Park) and grew up knowing the story of “Mrs. O’Leary’s cow that kicked over the lantern” and started the fire!
        I also think that your statement about people using some sort of excuse to get their own way and not ignoring common sense was well stated. Diane P.’s comment about taxes and not refusing help was a good point as well. Yes, I really do think the Amish act as if they are a sovereign nation and ignore the Bible about the “governing authorities” in this case.

        1. Lance

          I don’t think the Amish ‘ignore’ the ruling authorities as much as they reject the premise that the authorities and their ways are always right. This is one of those ‘everyone has an different opinion’ issues and no one’s opinion is completely right for everyone nor completely wrong.

        2. Alice Mary

          Bum rap for Mrs. O'Leary!

          Kim in NY, small world! My husband and I were married in Oak Park, IL 38 years ago!

          I just want to set the record straight that they have now exonerated Mrs. O’Leary’s cow as being the cause of the Great Chicago Fire. Now they feel it was some guy in the neighborhood–a ne’er-do-well–and the Good Mrs. O.(and her poor cow) had nothing to do with it!

          I find it curious that so many Amish (as I found out here on this blog & elsewhere) are volunteer firefighters, if “faith in God” is all they really need to “fight” fires!

          Alice Mary

    7. Carolyn B

      Please, would someone mind explaining how the Amish would for the most part interpret Luke 4:9-12 where Satan pesters Jesus and tells Him to throw himself down from a high place because the angels will protect Him, etc. Jesus’ response is “Thou shall not tempt the Lord thy God.”

      I’m very curious as that’s how I see the smoke detector issue. I’m terrified of fire and would not sleep comfortably in a home without a working smoke detector. I do understand and believe that God’s Will shall be done but if He’s willing to work through others such as Balaam’s mule in the O.T. why not smoke detectors?

      Thanks for any replies.

    8. Richard from Amish Stories

      I like the added safety of having smoke detectors, so If I were that Amish community I would just leave them on and working and just forget about them!

      Richard from

    9. Slightly-handled-Order-man

      An incident

      I don’t pay much attention to my smoke alarm even if I’m doing sausages for a meal and I get it a little smoky in here. I just wave a newsprint magazine in front of the device and think “oh, I guess dinner’s ready”

      I lived on the top floor of an apartment building and there was a balcony fire below us, the whole building was eventually evacuated regardless of the fact that the fire was outside. Our smoke detectors did not sound as the smoke did not come inside, luckily. It was scary though and did minimal exterior damage.

    10. Yoder

      I understand these people in Morristown are Swartzentruber Amish. This might add some “fuel to the fire,” but I know an Amish man in another state that sells smoke alarms! That’s just a difference in the Amish communities.

      Richard, I admire the blue quilt in your gravatar.

    11. OldKat

      Did anyone else notice?

      Did anyone else notice the story on cable news (CNN or MSNBC can’t remember which)in which light ionization smoke detectors were tested in a mock up of a burning house? Study was done at the Fire Academy at Texas A&M University.

      Turns out that if your fire was started by cooking food it has a pretty good chance of tripping the light ionization smoke detector. If the cause is an electrical or otherwise generated fire that ignites furniture, your alarm probably will take up to 35 minutes to sound! There is another type called a photosomething or other that fared much better. Has nothing to do with how the Amish view this issue, but I thought it was timely.

    12. Jean Junkin

      Smoke Detectors

      Aren’t the Amish allowed to have certain things that are run by battery, such as a clock or whatever. Why couldn’t adding a smoke detector or Carbon Monoxied Detector that work on batteries. We have a mobile home in which there is no way to hard wire either one of these. Ours run on batteries. Why can’t the Amish use the battery powered ones?

      1. Lance

        The Amish believe that the use of those devices would be placing one’s trust in something other than God. The more conservative Amish are more resistant to doing that or using battery powered devices in general. The most progressive of Amish are much more accepting of these things.

        The english world sees these devices as a useful protection of life, the Amish see them as a separation from trust only in God. The Amish would say, take your pick, trust man or trust God. They have a different viewpoint that controls their lives and choices.

        Note: there are at least 40 different ‘orders’ or types of Amish. Their are differences in viewpoints in these orders, so there is much more diversity of opinion and practice than there is in most Christian denominations.

        1. Thanks Lance for the succinct description. I always appreciate how you explain this.

    13. Bill Rushby

      Coyotes After My Sheep

      I have found the discussion of Swartzentruber resistance to smoke detectors quite interesting and (to be honest) disturbing!

      A few years ago we discovered that coyotes were killing our sheep a few at a time. We had been leaving them in the pasture at night, even though they were bedding down near the house and barn. Being quite risk-aversive, I began getting them into the barn lot every night, with a few lapses!

      Using the logic of trusting God rather than our own faltering efforts at self-protection and protection of our livestock, one could argue for leaving the sheep in the pasture and leaving their protection completely up to God! I chose to use the good sense God had given me, and got the sheep into “the fold.”

      I wonder how the Swartzentrubers or others of like mind would approach this situation. Does anyone know how Swartzentrubers respond to various concrete cases of avoidable risk? And do they all approach such matters in the same way?

      By the way, this discussion made me aware of how risk-aversive (conservative?) I am. I have been looking around the house, and see that a few more smoke detectors would, for me, be consistent with God’s will!!!

    14. bill bo bagens


      I have a lot of Amish friends sorry to say they hide behind a point of fact Amish is not a religion it is a lifestyle. They use battery for many things why not a smoke detector they use gas motors for many things but not a vehicle