Why Are Four Swartzentruber Amishmen Suing Minnesota?

Four Swartzentruber Amishmen took the unusual step of filing a lawsuit in 2017 against a Minnesota agency, over objections to wastewater requirements. Their trial began last week (article no longer online):

PRESTON — For the last week, four members of the Swartzentruber Amish community have listened to arguments on whether their religious beliefs would allow them to not comply with state wastewater regulations.

Four men, Ammon Swartzentruber, Menno Mast, Ammo Mast and Sam Miller, filed a suit in April 2017 against the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Fillmore County over concerns that an ongoing effort by the state agency and the county to require them to install a wastewater system for graywater would go against their religious faith.

“If they comply with this policy, they will have to answer for this utilization of wastewater systems at the Day of Judgement,” attorney Brian Lipford wrote in the initial complaint for the four men.

As a commenter notes, the article doesn’t especially elaborate upon the nature of the religious objections of the Amishmen to the wastewater system. This may come down to the argument that the Amish feel the technology itself is simply objectionable for some reason. Religious arguments might be the best way to advance a case in a court of law, regardless whether that objection is ensconced in true religious conviction, or rather stems from an ingrained cultural resistance to change  – especially change imposed from outside.

Here’s a summary of the timeline of the case, via postbulletin.com:

The contention can be traced back to March 2006, when the Fillmore County Zoning Office performed a compliance inspection on the homes as part of a countywide “Imminent Public Health Threat Inventory.”

The issue was brought back to the forefront in 2013. Minnesota passed a law requiring counties to create and enact local ordinances that comply with changes to the MPCA’s sewage treatment system within two years. All homes were to have a holding tank for wastewater, the size of which is determined by the number of bedrooms in the home.

The Fillmore County ordinance provided “alternative local standards” for their Amish community. Amish households are required to have a 1,000 gallon tank regardless of bedroom size.

Amish homeowners refused to make the mandated changes and the case was referred to the MPCA in August 2015.

In November 2017, the MCPA sent an administrative penalty order that ordered the Amish to make the necessary updates or appeal within 30 days. Members of the community again declined to make the changes and did not appeal within 30 days. A $1,000 fine was imposed in February 2016.

Amish in certain places have put their feet down when a government requirement attempts to force adoption of a practice or device which goes against their Ordnung or just their sense of staying within their tried and true ways. You saw this in the objections over smoke detectors which played out in New York and Wisconsin. Amish in Hardin County, Ohio were long embroiled in controversy over outhouses and waste disposal. In January, a Pennsylvania Amish family lost a court battle over connecting to an electric-powered municipal sewer system.

It usually doesn’t go to the level of the Amish initiating a lawsuit. But apparently the Amish in questions saw that as the lesser of the two evils. Amish in theory (and in practice, for the most part) do not file lawsuits as they see them as violating their stance of non-resistance.

So why take that monumental step of filing a lawsuit? Perhaps the Amish here fear that if they give in on one item, then more change and gradual erosion of their way of life, communities and churches is sure to follow. Perhaps they resent being told to change by outsiders. Perhaps the new system makes no sense to them. Perhaps it’s a mix of many things.

I’ve just returned from a diverse Amish community with many different types of Amish. While there I was reminded how some higher Amish can sometimes look down upon Swartzentruber Amish for what observers might deem stubbornness and resistance to change. At the same time, that resistance may one day be looked back upon with admiration especially given the pace of change happening in other Amish groups.

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    1. Sandra KO


      I guess when my head spins so much given the political harassment of our times, this argument against a law/code meant to be a safety measure for the people suing, as well as protection perhaps of ground water just seems pointless. Surely there are things that are more worthy to object to. Couldn’t time and money be spent more wisely?

    2. Donna R Parcel R.N.

      How do the Amish of this group usually deal with ‘gray water’ is it dealt with in a safe hygienic manner so as not to be a hazard to health – if so why would they need the tanks.
      Also, what happens to the tanks when they are full – do they build another or do they have to pay to have them emptied.
      A lot of so-called safety regulations are the result of someone wanting to have their name on a certain regulation so they seem important.
      Knowing the Amish in Iowa I would guess that they use the gray water to irrigate fields. Most of the Amish I know have a septic tank or something similar to deal with toilet sewage.

      1. It’s quite possible that it’s used on the fields. That’s the case in some other Amish groups.


    3. SL Crowley

      Gray Water

      We live in the country here in SW TX and we have our kitchen sink and dish washer our washer and bathtub all plumbed to go outside and not in our septic tank. Alot of us have this gray water that goes out into the back field area where it runs off in the ground.through 2 hoses each over 4 hundred feet long Why well because to have your sceptic tank drained runs around 300 dollars to be drained. In fact the septic tank guy told me the last time we had it drained at 300 dollars to do it and no toilet paper in the toilets period. That was 5 yrs ago and not so far had to have the septic tank drained . If these people have to have a gray water tank all they would be doing is having to have it drained a lot. Its gray water its a stupid idea. no hazor to heath here. No one comes looking to see if you are doing this. I hope they win their case.

    4. A. Swartzentruber

      The grey water systems are not causing any harm to the environmental health in any way. The Amish have been around for many many years and they have used outhouses as well as those that came before without electricity or indoor plumbing and no harm was done. Menno has a mulch system that absorbs the waste into the ground. Some have a straight pipe that runs straight out of the house down a hill that is completely controlled by gravity. The water does not come into contact with human waste what so ever. The Amish are not doing any harm and the county is just looking for more money. Let the Amish live their life in peace.