Michigan County Deems Amish Homes “Unfit For Human Habitation”

Amish in Lenawee County, Michigan were told they had until last Friday to leave their homes – due to “unsafe living conditions.”

This comes after a years-long conflict between the county’s Amish and local authorities.

Photo by Mary Speer/WTOL

Here’s a summary of the story til now, from WTOL:

The first group arrived four years ago after branching off from an Amish community in Camden. They bought a few plots of land, built homes, barns and tilled the land to make it suitable for farming. Not long after, they were surprised by an inspection from the Lenawee County Health Department and were soon told that their outhouses, water wells and hand pumps in place of running water and indoor plumbing were a violation of county code. However, the requirements laid out by the county directly conflict with strict tenets of their conservative religion.

Monthly letters were sent in 2016 and 2017 before the department sat down with the community’s bishop. No resolution was made. A final letter was sent in January 2019, and months after that a notice was put on each of their doors, stating the dwellings were “unfit for human habitation.” That document gave them 30 days to leave or face the penalty of a $500 and/or up to 90 days in jail. Those 30 days ran out on Friday, with no solution in sight.

The Camden community, which is the parent settlement here, has some roots in the Swiss Amish, though I’m not sure if they are or are not considered a Swiss settlement today (some Swiss Amish churches are among the materially plainer Amish).

Allies of the Amish are showing support and hoping for a compromise. The article notes that the applicable sections of the county health code are “a bit vague”  and that part of the code provides some “wiggle room” – allowing individual variances under certain conditions, including that “No substantial health hazard or nuisance is likely to occur there from”.

For their part, one Amish person says that their water has been tested and declared safe.

Why are they resisting change here?

One Amish person in the community “said they believe even minor fluctuations in what this community allows for themselves can have major implications.” Small changes can soon lead to bigger ones, the thinking goes.

We’ve seen this type of conflict play out before in various forms in other communities.

In fact, sewage and wastewater disposal-related issues come up frequently enough that I’d think of these as similarly common to SMV triangle and horse manure issues.

These include the outhouse conflicts in Ohio and Kansas, the electric-powered sewer case in Pennsylvania, a dispute over both plumbing and smoke detectors in Wisconsin, and the ongoing Minnesota gray water case.

What’s next

Have any Amish actually been evicted from their homes? The answer is no, at least at this point. Here’s how things stand:

The 30-day notice as marked is up on Friday. Technically, if they do not leave or comply with what the county wants, they could be jailed or fined. As of this writing, the community has not been evicted.

Some neighbors and advocates are working to find a solution, but it seems like no official plan of action is in place. When asked, one homeowner said that for now, his plan is to pray. He was adamant that his community isn’t out to do any damage or cause any trouble. They just want to be left alone and live in peace.

Will authorities actually kick Amish out of their homes?

Or put them in jail?

Seems that would be an awful and ugly “resolution” to the matter.

I realize “Unfit For Human Habitation” is boilerplate health code language, but it still sounds pretty arrogant when we know that Amish can live just fine in their homes as they have done for ages.

They may not align with the comfort and luxuries non-Amish expect in their own homes, but if the way the Amish do things were resulting in them getting sick and living in misery, I think they’d manage to figure that out and correct the matter.

But obviously that’s not the case. They are living just fine in their own way – as they have for decades in the state (their parent community of Camden was founded in 1956).

I believe the more relevant question to the County’s interests is whether the way the Amish are handling waste and water is a threat to other residents of the community.

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    39 Comments

    1. Brenda Hine

      Here in lies the issue

      What’s going on here is the same that goes on with people wanting to live in their vans , trucks etc. Because it does not conform to what some people deem normal then it shouldn’t be allowed.
      My grandparents all had outhouses , my husbands family didn’t have an indoor bathroom until his sister was 5 or 6. They all survived. Most had well water,.
      Townships want all to be cookie cutter , money paying in citizens . Anything out side of that is unacceptable in gov eyes. They also pull this nonsense when they want the land and want you off it. Twice my grandparents were kicked off their land in Kentucky and Tennessee do to imminent domain.

    2. Liz

      county eviction

      It sounds like the issue is due to groundwater contamination near a populous area. All that needs to be done is to dig out and install a septic tank to obtain compliance. Would this solution be satisfactory?

      1. If you’re asking if it would be satisfactory from the perspective of the Amish, I do not know in this case. Some Amish object to septic systems. That is one objection of the Amish in the MN gray water case I linked above.

        These Amish are likely not as plain as that group, though they seem definitely on the more conservative side. I am not sure what their view on a septic system would be (assuming that solves the issue from the County side of things).

        1. Walter Boomsma

          The slippery slope...

          There are some rural “developments” (often groups of lakefront camps) here in Maine that have adopted association rules prohibiting pressurized water delivery systems. There are several reasons… one being that it increases water usage and encourages the installation of septic systems (which depend on lots of water). The unstated reason for the rule is to keep the area “seasonal” and not have year-round residents thus preserving the community as (hopefully) the community wishes to remain.

    3. Walter Boomsma

      Disgusting and ridiculous!

      “Why are they resisting change here?” is the wrong question. One question would better be, “Why are ‘authorities’ choosing to make this an issue?”

      I could probably offer several theories but they wouldn’t be pretty.

      Here in Maine, it’s possible to get a permit for an outhouse. Some would argue that a properly maintained outhouse is a very environmentally sound method of handling “waste.” Yes, if Amish practice was harming other residents it would be appropriate for ‘authorities’ to seek a solution that would respect the rights of all involved parties.

      (I keep putting ‘authorities’ in quotes intentionally. Another question that might be asked is how does an ‘authority’ become one and what is the extent of that ‘authority?’ That might be a hint as to one of my theories.)

      Just because the Amish are “used to” being persecuted we don’t have a license to do so.

      1. “Why are they resisting change here?”

        For the record, I wasn’t asking that question as a means of criticism (I realize it might have been taken that way), but rather to set up the next paragraph, which explains Amish concerns about the “slippery slope” of small changes. I certainly respect that concern and approach.

        What would be your #1 theory as to why they are attempting to enforce this?

        1. Walter Boomsma

          Nice transition...

          And, Eric… as a writer I certainly recognized that. But I took advantage of it because I fear that is the question a lot of people are asking.

          My number one theory… power, and purpose. Regulators regulate. It gives them a purpose. It’s really not about the common good for most regulators. The rules (regulations) become their god. It’s also a mild form of bullying, although in this case, it’s hardly mild. Bullies are often insecure and gain self-worth by having power over others.

          I admire the Amish because they seem to “get” the common good. It really isn’t about regulating for them, it’s about preserving “the common good.” And they actually think.

          1. Sure thing Walter, good that you brought it up.

            And, you might be right about that in this case (though generally speaking, I would say the point about regulators is more often than not just what you describe).

            Hopefully the publicity, and the allies the Amish seem to have there, will help lead this case to a satisfactory resolution for all.

    4. Jenn M

      Unbelievable

      Leave these people alone!! They have lived this way for YEARS! It’s perfectly acceptable for them. Just because they don’t live up to gov’t standards doesn’t mean they should be forced to. It’s all about the gov’t wanting to make a dollar. These are peaceful people and just want to be left alone. I admire them for that

      1. Mary Teresa Valle

        leave the Amish alone

        The Amish should be left alone. I don’t think they are harming anyone. Of course the ‘authorities’ might force the Amish to put in these modern conveniences but that doesn’t mean that the Amish have to use them.

    5. John J. Keim

      Flint water crisis

      So let me get this straight, the Michigan government is worried that their water is safe, but they don’t care about the people in Flint, Michigan, who have had a water crisis in their city for five plus years. Who knows how many of their children have so much lead poisoning their bodies that they’re are doomed for the rest of their lives. At least a dozen or people died in Flint from legionaires decease, because of that water crisis in Flint. Just amazing.

      1. right on!

        Very apt comparison!

    6. Dawn Tabbert

      Incredible

      The humble and lovely Amish have lived good lives in many communities for centuries. They are an asset in any community. I lived among them in the Arthur, IL, area many years ago, and I could feel the sweet spirit of God in their midst. LEAVE THEM ALONE!!!!!!!

    7. Andersen

      Usual government bullying, with a certain agenda

      This is just yet another govrnment hareshment / bullying.
      Seen it before in so many ways,….education department, social department, health & infrastructure departments….each time with a certain agenda behind.
      Government say ” for health reasons “… this time.
      But real government agenda is :
      1. Either to get Amish and other none modern settlers to follow a certain government code…or make them move away….before more of same kibd follow a simple living principle and some one feel they loose control & money.
      2. If we follow government, its always to benefit of certain shareholders in water, electricity, heating companies.
      3. These infrastructure companies send out health departments/governments as their agents.
      We must stand behind the Amish and support / pray.
      Br Andersen

    8. Feneshia g

      Amish

      The Amish deserves their peace.i was raised pretty much like the Amish.no electricity,handpumps,well or spring water.outhouses.i am healthy@so is my family.i would go back to living this way if I could.i was healthier@happier.The Amish love their homes@lands.families@communities.please leave them alone

    9. Kiki

      Code Enforcement

      If this is a code enforcement issue the Amish may be able to follow their own rules and still satisfy the county; we built a home according to code, including using a licensed plumber and electrician. The property is on top a mountain. No electric available. Here in Klamath Co., Oregon you can use unconventional toilets but must have a gray water septic system. Ours isn’t finished but the house itself passed all inspections. We’re completely off-grid so even though the house is wired for electricity we don’t use it. The Amish don’t have to use the electricity, even though it’s there, nor do they have to use a flushing toilet, even though it’s there. Build according to code but go ahead and live according to the rules of that particular order. Unconventional or old ways of doing things gets attention. If you don’t want government attention, build according to code.

    10. Marsha and Don

      Codes? Eviction?

      I am NOT Amish and do not believe their strict enforcement of legalism fits the reason
      Christ died on the cross for all of us. BUT, they are great people, trustworthy, and honest. For GOD’S Sake: spend your time going after criminals:”thieves, rapist, thugs, gang members to name a few.
      Leave these people alone and make yourself useful going after trouble makers. Personally, I don’t see the point in so many laws except control by some man-made rules. But, whether they choose to live without zippers, underwear, dating, air conditioning, or running water, is no one’s business. My grandparents (ever) and my parents (for a while) and I, lived without much of what they are being sited for. In my opinion, we were much healthier than the state of sickness our country lives in now. Dying of cancer, heart failure, diabetes and an array of other illness brought on by our “civilized” wisdom. We are killing ourselves with medication and keeping our mind dull and unresponsive with prescription drugs AND we want to site the Amish? Give me a break! Better yet, Give THEM a break. Leave them alone. We would all be better off to adopt some of their more simple lifestyles. They teach their children to work. We produce useless Millenniums

      1. John J. Keim

        Human Habitation

        Well, if you really want to get rid of criminals, rapists, and thugs, then you have to start with the one in the the white house, to be sure. The millenials are definitely not the problem.

        1. Jenn M

          Why does everything have to turn in to political nonsense just to take a jab at the POTUS? Just stop.

          1. Walter Boomsma

            A fish with two mouths...

            Jenn M… I was thinking the same thing. Then I saw a picture someone posted on Facebook of a mutated fish with two mouths! Would it surprise you to know that one of the commenters attempted to explain that it was the fault of POTUS?

            1. Jenn M

              It’s unbelievable. This particular incident has nothing to do with the President. Let’s stick to the subject

      2. Kiki

        Well said. Codes are supposed to be there for the benefit of everyone. However, when new ones are made just for the purpose of singling out ONE group, or when they’re suddenly enforced on a particular group, it’s more a matter of discrimination. Sad.

    11. Elin Hagberg

      Properly handled an outhouse is more environmentally friendly than a flushing toilet. The waste must be contained and composted the proper way but once that is complete it is no longer a health hazard and this process should be completely within the Amish way of life as should other forms of containing waste water from other parts of the house hold. If they are denied the right to use such methods it is indeed an offense. Having no electricity or using a handpump cannot harm the other people and this is their choice, it should in my mind not be an issue.

    12. James Gas

      Agree with your comments. The Amish are easy targets. Where was the board of health in Flint ,Michigan
      Water crisis? They could not be found. Thousands of people drank contaminated water. But by God those outhouses have to be outlawed right away.

    13. J

      Leave them alone

      Some people use the government as a tool to force the Amish out to get the land….develop it for more houses, or, dare I say, a casino…

      Using well-water is just fine and might be cleaner and safer than the water that is pumped into your home.

      Using an out-house in the middle of winter might be cold. But again, it’s fine to use as long as it’s the correct distance from the well. And according to the State, it is.

      Please remember, the government makes money by forcing you to pay for permits and taxes on this type of work at your home. Since the Amish are not installing the indoor plumbing/water supply, the county misses out on a lot of money.

      Basically, money is to be made by forcing the Amish out. By a developer? A casino?….Follow the money.

      1. It might be about money, but this is still a rather small number of households we are talking about – there’s just one church district in Lewanee County. So maybe 30-40 households, max (and possibly a lot fewer).

    14. Stephen

      Composting toilets are legal in most States

      I’ve been out west, and noticed that composting toilets are installed in many state recreational areas by the state government instead of septic systems. They are an option in most places, why are the state health code officials in michigan being such hard heads. It is certainly not an issue of public health or safety. And definitely seems more of an issue of forcing people to bow down to those who believe themselves to be superior in their wisdom than those who follow God’s wisdom.

    15. Karen

      More persecution

      They need to leave the Amish alone! They have gotten along fine all these years, have harmed no one and leave the world in a better place than they found it. I am sick of governments pumping their muscles to get the Amish to conform to what they deem as acceptable

    16. Real American

      discrimination, typical Nazi behavior

      read up on 1930s in Germany. Smaller groups were targeted 1 at a time. Power thugs go first for those that don’t or can’t fight back. The “English” neighbors need to recall the elected officials. NOW. or “encourage” to relocate to Detroit or Flint.

    17. Deborah Halcomb

      Several years ago I worked with at risk children. The houses their parents rented from slum lords was a disgrace as was the price to live in unsafe houses and apartments. Yet no one bothered to tell the landlords to fix the hazardous conditions or go to jail and pay fines.

      I say leave them alone.

    18. nt

      Ask the health department why they’re so obsessed with setting the foundation for seizing, via eminent domain, Amish land for commercial ventures. Because you can be pretty sure that’s why they’re doing this. They see dollar signs and like most ‘progressive’ local government boards these days, they despise the Amish and and group that has a cultural identity that is separate form commercialism and materialism.

      https://www.facebook.com/LenaweeCountyHealthDepartment/

    19. The same happened in Eau Claire County, Wisconsin

      https://www.facebook.com/1438874993030494/posts/2336692279915423?s=708979187&sfns=mo

      To help advocate for the Amish in Eau Claire County (Wisconsin) several years ago when the same thing happened, we started a Facebook page. With 7,000 followers at its peak, the social media helped educate local “English” community members as to what was happening in court dates and updates down to the actual placard-evictions by the sheriff (ordered by the court). It became national news. And a black eye to the County. The issue was litigated and appealed (lost), but finally resolved with a “religious waiver” led by Wisconsin Rep. (now Senator) Kathy Bernier. The County wastes hundreds and hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on this fruitless enforcement effort over many years.

    20. Facebook page link

      https://www.facebook.com/pg/EauClaireCountyAmish/about/

      Correction: the page has 1,700 followers (not 7,000). Typo!

    21. Randy

      Intolerance is a Weakness and Repression-Oriented Attitudes Are Unacceptable

      —- Erik, as always, thanks for yet another interesting blog post. Appreciation as well, albeit subject to what I have stated below, to all commentators for augmenting the post by expressing your interesting ideas and opinions.

      —- Walter, I entirely agree with your comments concerning regulators and regulations (and I suspect that I also agree with the other points to which you alluded but diplomatically chose not to elucidate, consistent with the culture of civility that pleasantly pervades Erik’s blog).

      —- Jenn M., I respectfully disagree with your directive to “just stop” comments about the extent to which a President can affect local culture and the practices of local government officials.

      I am under the impression that the mores of Erik’s blog include a mostly observed practice of reserving general political commentary — and particularly partisanship — for other forums rather than here. And I think we all appreciate the high road approach usually followed by this commentary community in a way that also permits respectful straightforward disagreements and frank, interesting exchanges of viewpoints. Tellingly, I note that Erik did not feel the need to exercise his right, since it is his blog, to block either the limited negative commentary about millenials, the limited negative comment about the President, or your own negative politically-charged comment. Please understand that I would not be objecting to your comment had you simply respectfully voiced your view that the President’s conduct is irrelevant to the topic, said you were uncomfortable with commentary that seems poised to veer off into a potentially politically partisan discussion, and suggested that comments remain focused more tightly on local code enforcement. Ironically, however, the negative tenor of your comment was no less politically flavored and was equally dogmatic, and it was derisive to a fellow commentator. In contrast, Walter’s concurrence that too much is being attributed to the President was a tactful expression of opinion, laced with humor to amplify civility, and devoid of either rancor or any repressive directive.

      Whether I agree or disagree with your opinion that the President’s conduct (of whatever nature it is) is irrelevant to local behavior (and for purposes of my own comment here, it is indeed irrelevant whether I do or don’t agree with you on that point or how I would characterize the President’s conduct), I will never – not ever – stand silent when someone tries to literally and simply shut down the expression of a differing opinion. When in disagreement, expressing that disagreement respectfully is not only admirable but can often also amount to a duty. Reasoned debate in the face of an opposing view — even one that is wholly repugnant to one’s sensibilities — is to be encouraged. (BTW, an unsupported declaration that someone else’s opinion is nonsense usually reveals to listeners only the fact that the declarant is either unwilling, or lacks the ability, to comprehend its elements rather than that it in fact lacks merit.) Declining to respond or engage can be ok, too, if it is for purposes of reserving comment for a more appropriate and/or more effective forum. Repression is not ok.

      “Stop it” repression is not an option tolerated in the U.S. of A. Doesn’t matter who’s attempting it – whether conservative, liberal or otherwise (purposefully stated alphabetically, since my own label is irrelevant to this). Trying to repress, rather than address, the views of others is a slap in the face to me and also to my loved ones who put their lives on the line to successfully defeat tyranny, protect the interests of this country and the safety of its citizens, including you – and preserve the Constitutional rights that we all hold dear (among the others, saliently here the right to free expression). I don’t think you intended your comment to be generally offensive in that way (although, unfortunately, you did create the impression that you didn’t care if the way you expressed it offended the author of the comment with which you disagreed, and rudeness is a symptom of at least some degree of extremism). Regardless of intent, it is appropriate for all of us, since we’re all human and make mistakes, to be reminded from time to time that attitude and words – which are inextricably intertwined – matter, and with respect to certain fundamental things, should and do matter quite deeply.

      I’m not requesting an apology. Perhaps you think that a “just stop it” form of repression is ok. In that case, I’ll continue to stand ready to defend your right to say so, even though (thankfully) any such actual repression won’t itself be allowed. But I won’t do so without vociferously, albeit I hope respectfully, repeatedly voicing my disagreement and reminding you that the protection – by peaceful observance (or by non-peaceful means if called upon to serve in our military against enemies of our country) – of our Constitutional rights is something that is an individual duty of all citizens, not just something to be done by the judiciary. Or much more likely is that you simply reacted too quickly (i.e., rather thoughtlessly) in tossing out what seems to you like a casual statement — and that you’re taken aback and/or think I am strongly overreacting. That could well be the impression I’m creating for some readers here. But I doubt that is the impression gained by anyone who has been in service or otherwise has an understanding of the sacrifices that have been made by those who serve or served, and why they serve(d). What I am asking is that you simply join with me in heeding the reminder I expressed. It matters.

    22. Terry

      Everybody should be held to the same standard. Your religion should not be the reason you do not have to follow the laws of the land, as the Bible tells us to obey.

    23. Dee Huckins

      Michigan neeed to get off thier high horse

      I dont agree with the actions of the state. I am by far not an Amish advocate, however, this country guarantees freedom of religion and for those to be allowed to follow thier desired faith. Many Amish live by that faith. If one does not care for the practice, then they need to get elected, go to Washington and change the constitution.
      Now that said, before Michigan starts “throwing stones” they better look at thier reflection in the water, especially in the sinks in Flint. Michigan Government you have bigger fish to fry, and I wouldn’t eat them if they were caught in Flint.

    24. Sonya Sampson

      Leave Michigan

      We have some Amish folk that have moved into a couple of different areas here in Maine. You are welcome to come!

    25. Recent Update on this Topic

      I thought that there might be some who would be interested to see this.

    26. Matthew M

      Update on 12/18/2019

      I was trying to post the website for this article, but I can’t seem to get it to work. If you would like to see this article search ACLU defends Amish in Michigan and it should come up.