The Amish plaintiffs appealed this case to the Supreme Court back in March (if you’re new to this story, here’s a summary of the issue, and some further explanation shared with us by expert witness Karen Johnson-Weiner).
At the time, it was unclear whether it would even be heard. And it seemed unlikely, as the Supreme Court only hears 100 to 150 of the roughly 7,000 cases it is asked to review each year. Not only was the case heard, but the Court sided with the Amish. From USA Today:
WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Friday sided with an Amish community that is challenging on religious grounds a Minnesota county’s requirement that its members install septic systems to treat wastewater.
The high court overturned a state court ruling that had sided with the county and asked the state’s courts to review the case again in light of its recent ruling in favor of a Catholic foster care agency in Philadelphia that refused to screen same-sex couples.
Fillmore County in 2013 began requiring that the Swartzentruber Amish, who reject modern technology as part of their religion, install septic systems to treat the wastewater from laundry, bathing and cooking – known as gray water. The Amish instead want to reuse that water for irrigation or treat it through less sophisticated systems.
In an opinion concurring with the Supreme Court’s decision, Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch said the state courts misread a federal law dealing with how such land use regulations may be applied to religious entities. It was the latest example of the Supreme Court siding with a claim of religious freedom in a contest with an asserted governmental interest.
“County officials have subjected the Amish to threats of reprisals and inspections of their homes and farms. They have attacked the sincerity of the Amish’s faith,” Gorsuch wrote. “In this country, neither the Amish nor anyone else should have to choose between their farms and their faith.”
Further explanation from the article (and for the legally-inclined, the relevant Supreme Court document is here):
As in the Philadelphia case, Gorsuch said that the septic system law at issue in Minnesota had an exception and, because of that, courts need to heavily scrutinize a law that imposes a burden on religious organizations or activities while offering exceptions to secular ones.
“In Minnesota,” Gorsuch wrote, “those who ‘hand-carr[y]’ their gray water are allowed to discharge it onto the land directly.”
A law signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000 requires governments to tread carefully when zoning and other property regulations affect religious entities. To enforce such regulations, a government – such as a county – must have a compelling interest to do so and its rule must be as narrowly tailored as possible to serve that interest.
The Amish plaintiffs said that while Fillmore County has a general interest in ensuring wastewater is treated, it isn’t necessary on the rural farms where they live. They also said 20 other states allow gray water reuse systems in place of septic tanks. Raw sewage is not at issue because the community uses outhouses rather than toilets.
It’s not often a case involving the Amish makes its way all the way to the highest court in the land. The most famous example is Wisconsin v. Yoder which enabled Amish parental control over their children’s schooling. The specifics of this particular case appear to apply to a much more limited segment of the Amish. Nonetheless it is remarkable that it went this far. Will this bring a close to this issue for these Amish, which got its start over 15 years ago?