Four cases involving a conflict between traditional Amish ways — particularly when it comes to smoke and carbon monoxide detectors — and modern society are slated for a scheduling conference at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday before Judge Kristina Bourget.
The crux of the matter is that four Amish families are facing fines and potential eviction for failing to obtain building permits and sanitary permits for homes they built in recent years.
The Amish resistance to obtaining building permits centers on the requirement that all new homes include smoke and CO detectors — electronic devices they consider modern conveniences that violate the tenets of their religion that require them to live a simple lifestyle, said Randy Hill, an Eau Claire tax preparer who has several Amish clients.
“The Amish aren’t asking the county to throw their building codes away. They’re asking the county to make accommodations to honor their religious rights,” Hill said.
But officials in the county’s Planning and Development Department said they are merely enforcing laws designed to protect the health and safety of residents.
“We enforce the uniform dwelling code uniformly,” said department director James “Mel” Erickson. “Unless the courts or the law tells us differently, we enforce it equally on everybody to the best of our ability.”
Wisconsin legislators have attempted to introduce changes to the law “to exempt one- and two-family homes with no electricity from laws requiring smoke and CO detectors.”
This recalls another conflict over smoke alarms in a New York Swartzentruber Amish community. For the most traditional Amish, smoke detectors can be seen as offensive technology. Relying on one may be considered questioning God’s plan.
That dispute was resolved in 2012 thanks to concessions on both sides and some helpful grey area (Amish agreed to have detectors installed to pass inspection, but no one would check whether they left them in afterwards).
Interestingly, the Amish here have rejected such a loophole:
Bernier said the Amish could have tricked the system either by installing smoke and CO detectors and then removing them after inspections or by signing permits calling for them to install the detectors and then never following through.
But Amish leaders determined such dishonesty would violate their religion, thus setting up the impasse with county regulators, she said. Adding to the gravity of the situation, Amish residents deemed to have violated the group’s religious principles face the possibility of being shunned, or kicked out of the community.
The four families currently owe $52,000 in fines. State representative Kathy Bernier hopes the bill passes before they are forced to pay or are evicted.
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