Wisconsin Amish won’t play games to avoid smoke detector fines, possible eviction

A conflict over smoke detectors and building permits is unfolding in an Amish community in Eau Claire County, Wisconsin.  From the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram:

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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    1. City Slicker

      By profession and through professional experience, I am a firm believer in smoke detectors, and indeed have personal knowledge of a number of instances where they likely saved lives.

      Myself, I would not fail to have them in my home.

      However, the key in the foregoing is the phrase “MY home”. If someone chooses not to avail themselves of the protection afforded by a smoke detector, however unwise I may think that to be, it is THEIR choice in THEIR home.

    2. Bill Nelson

      Smoke Detector Games

      I have a lot of respect for the Amish. I completely agree every dwelling in the country should have smoke detectors, But, in saying that, I violate the Amish tenant that God has a plan for us all. There is no simple answer to this. However forcing the Amish to LIE about the instillation of the devices is worse. Exempting single and dual family homes is ludicrous. Imagine the ghetto dwellers on TV after a fire saying that had their neighbors been NOT exempted because they lived in a single residence, they would still be alive…..
      A tough issue to be sure. Prayers for guidance to all concerned!!!

      1. Amish smoke detector decisions

        It’s interesting that the Amish in one community in NY were apparently okay with that solution though. I can’t really find fault with them though. It probably seemed like an imperfect way to finally end a long running dispute, especially if it was suggested or implied to them that it would be okay by the people who created the laws or were responsible for enforcing them.

        These Amish in Wisconsin are setting the integrity bar higher, which is their choice. Maybe the idea was framed in a different way for them, or maybe their definition of what is honest simply differs from that of their cousins in NY.

        1. Wondercat

          Building codes / compliance

          Erik, a few words from you on other aspects of Amish compliance / non-compliance (outhouse versus septic tank with drain field; manure spreading in watershed zones) would make interesting reading.

          1. Amish compliance

            These have been hotly discussed topics in the recent past. There was a case in Ohio this and last year which combined both issues you mention.

            I respect the principled stance but also wonder what the ripple effects could be on the Amish as a whole if and when an issue with wider implications (ie over school, military exemptions) should arise. Generally Amish have a very good public opinion and support especially compared to World War era days (and this has helped them in achieving a number of religious exemptions).

            However public goodwill may be eroded over time due to loud controversies in which the english public finds it hard to identify with a given minority-Amish practice (ie, spreading human waste on fields or not using the SMV triangle). That doesn’t mean I’m suggesting they shouldn’t be true to their beliefs, but I admit to, on occasion, being skeptical as to how much religious is in the “religious argument” reasoning. See this comment for example: https://amishamerica.com/should-we-leave-amish-and-their-outhouses-alone/#comment-55479

            The idea is that the public generally doesn’t distinguish one group of Amish from another, so when there is a loud conflict, it is seen as “the Amish” creating an issue. So Amish of all stripes are in the same boat in this sense.

            These posts have some good discussion attached as well: https://amishamerica.com/amish-government-outta-my-outhouse/

    3. Margaret

      An idea or two

      I had to deal with this last year. I didn’t have a CO2 device. And even though my sister was buying my unit my county said I had to purchase it before it could pass code. Okay. And weirdly enough my the unit in my new home went on the Frits after 3/4 months…resulting with me having to purchase another one.

      Both those detectors can run on batteries. So you don’t need electricity to keep them up running. How about having them up and running for the inspection and then removing the batteries post inspection. Just leave them in place with no battery.

      Honestly since the Amish still want to be so separate from mainstream America that should be their right. It’s not like every home is asking for this exemption. They want to put all their faith in God–let them. That is what this country was founded on. Freedom of religion.

      We might not agree with their stand but who are we to judge another’s faith? Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. Let them be. Allow the exemption because it’s the right thing to do. It isn’t for any of us to decide the truthfulness of their religion.

    4. Debbie H

      I agree with Margaret, no one should be aloud to judge the truthfulness of the Amish or any religion. and kudos to them for not circumventing the law as the New York Amish did. That is what we English have done in our religions, circumvent the law. The Amish live according to the Biblical mandate to live “in the world, not of the world.” If the law makers want to protect our health and safety they should outlaw public smoking, manufacture of cars that exceed 70MPH, genetically modified foods, drugs that may cause cancer and other health problems, the list goes on.

      1. Deb

        Wisconsin won't play games to avoid smoke detector fines, possible evition

        You have a point regarding the legalization of smoking and cars that drive over 70 mph. Unfortunately, many lawmakers are smoking and driving over 70 mph., so really, what are the chances of those laws being passed. I do agree with the requirement of the detectors though. It’s for everyone’s safety. They save lives. They should be allowed. Deb

    5. Linda

      If it helps any, wireless interconnected battery-powered smoke alarms are available.

    6. Alice Mary

      Tough call all around

      Bill, Margaret & Debbie H. all make good points. I also agree this is a tough call.

      I think smoke & CO2 alarms are lifesavers, and I wouldn’t think of being without them. If nothing else, the Amish using propane, kerosene, wood burning stoves for cooking, heating, oil lamps for lighting, are already “playing with fire” NO PUN INTENDED, honestly. Their lifestyle puts them at risk, period. But I do believe that since the govt. has made many other “exceptions” for them, and since, for the most part, they live far apart from one another & their English neighbors(not on top of each other in highrise apartments or even 2 flats on narrow city lots), let them decide whether or not to adhere to code. I suppose the govt. could refuse to fight fires in Amish areas which don’t allow smoke detectors (not very humane or neighborly, but it’s an option, I suppose). However, if the Amish are adjacent (close) to others who follow code, and a fire that’s undetected in the Amish home could harm those others(English, I’m thinking), the code ought to be enforced. Maybe the Amish would leave (as they have done many, many times in their history) for areas with less restrictive rules that wouldn’t interfere with their religious beliefs.

      I respect the Wisconsin Amish for not playing those games, and standing up for their beliefs. Still, this issue might well call for the wisdom of Solomon!

      Alice Mary

    7. Mind Your Business.

      I don’t see anything in the Constitution giving government authority to go into someone’s house and tell them what to do with it. Now, if the house was close to another’s house, and be a fire hazard to them, that may be different. The Amish won when the gov. tried to make them pay for Social Security ( they don’t get handouts, and provide for their own )- I suspect they’ll win this one, especially with people leaning more libertarian.

      1. don

        this is a reply to Gary’s coment that they take care of their own.they do take hand outs, they are often at the food pantry’s and church food give aways. they often use the local dental and medical clinics stating that they are low income and poverty.some work at full time jobs dairy manufacturing and dont pay income taxes like the english have to do.i drive them to these places so i know what they do.

        1. Ed from NY

          The Amish, taxes and aid.

          Don, your comment regarding income taxes and “taking care of one’s own” is not correct.

          Amish who work at outside jobs at factories or elsewhere absolutely ARE responsible for paying income tax. There is NO exemption from income tax laws for being Amish. Anyone, Amish or otherwise, who earns income above the required threshold and fails to report it would be subject to prosecution; the IRS doesn’t accept religious arguments to avoid taxes. The Amish are very careful to follow all laws, which is why disputes over unusual issues like smoke detectors make the news.

          As for accepting help from food pantries or free clinics, I’m not sure what your point is. While it is true that some Amish are quite wealthy (as Erik highlights in his book) the fact is that most Amish live well below the poverty line and scrape by with very little money indeed. Still, they invariably will not accept food stamps or other government aid. Given these facts, what is your issue with some Amish accepting help from a private food bank or from a doctor who offers low cost medical treatment?

          Short article on Amish reluctance to accept food stamps and the “problems” this causes the food stamp program in Ohio: http://reason.com/blog/2006/12/27/amish-refusal-to-accept-food-s

    8. The Other Erik

      It's God's will that safety devices exist

      There’s no obvious reason to believe that smoke detectors and lightning rods are tricks of the Devil. So isn’t it reasonable to assume that those devices produce a result that’s part of God’s plan?

      Although fires are often started by human negligence, the Amish seem to consider the resulting fire damage to be part of God’s will. The invention of safety devices is also the work of humans so, by similar logic, it seems like the resulting absence of fire damage is also part of God’s will.

      If the Amish refuse those technological gifts, that seems like spitting in God’s face.

      Erik, do you know any Amish who can answer that?

      1. God's will and Amish objections to safety devices

        Erik a lot of Amish are not going to object to the gist of what you are saying here, or at least don’t have an objection to devices like smoke alarms and warning triangles on their vehicles.

        There is a gap in thinking between the most traditional Amish, for instance the group here in Wisconsin, and their “higher” brethren. The Amish in question here have taken a harder stance as to what degree they should insure themselves against misfortune.

        Amish (and non-Amish for that matter) will land on different places on the spectrum as to what precautions you should take to prevent misfortune (though it seems to me that you can take the logic to its extreme in either direction).

        Amish of all stripes feel you should trust in God’s will. More progressive, for lack of a better term, Amish would be apt to say something like, yes, we need to trust in God’s will, but God also gave us the capacity to protect ourselves. Those Amish will have smoke detectors in their homes.

        I don’t think the spitting in God’s face idea is apt though…there are a number of technologies which can lead to evil and which Amish across-the-board refuse for sound community-building reasons. I respect the decision even though I would choose otherwise. For that matter I think Amish, on the whole, are more thoughtful about technology than we are, though they sometimes reach different conclusions on what to accept due to differences in worldview.


    9. Lee Ann

      There is so much I admire about the Amish and their rejection of much of technology, but with this issue, I believe that smoke and carbon monoxide detectors should be mandatory for them as well as the rest of the population. Others have raised the very valid point that some Amish are living in close proximity to other houses – those houses deserve to be protected, and an early warning signal re smoke/fire in one house can help protect another. Furthermore, children are often living in or visiting Amish homes, and are deserving of protection from fire or carbon monoxide, even if their parents don’t wish to install the detectors. I do, in principle, agree with the idea that in my home, I should be able to make my own choices, but no one is an island, and our decisions can so easily affect others, whether it is the house next door or a visiting child who had no say in the decision regarding detectors.

    10. Dirk

      Forgive my ignorance, but what produces carbon monoxide in a home to such a level that it can kill?
      The only one I know of is people who have committed suicide by connecting a gardenhose to their car’s tail pipe.

      1. City Slicker


        Carbon Monoxide (CO) is a normal byproduct of combustion; defective home heating units (any kind: coal, gas, oil, wood) can produce excessive CO levels, and/or chimney flue blockages can cause backups into the home.

        1. Dirk

          Thank you for explaining the dangers of CO gas, I guess the government is only trying to do their part to protect their citizens.
          The NY Amish had the right approach. The State has the right, as it’s sworn duty to protect, to insist on the detectors being installed (battery opperated ones for the Amish) as a building code, along with all the other building codes and regulations, and the Amish as home owners have the right whether to use them or not once installed.

          Amazing that with all the laws and regulations the government dreams up to protect it’s citizens from death, such as seat belts, no smoking laws, etc. death still has a 100% success rate.

          It’s almost as if by enforcing such laws they believe they can cheat death. This the Amish understand is not possible and see no need for such devices to try and cheat death. God sees the end of all things at their begining and death will come when decreed, in one form or another, despite how many precautions one may take to avoid death, it always wins. Pity that the Wisconsin legislators have lost sight of this simple truth.

    11. Ed from NY

      Although I don’t understand the religious objection to smoke detectors, I do strongly feel that a man (or woman) should be allowed to build his or her own, single family house, as he or she wants.

      The Amish aren’t the only ones who encounter problems with building codes. There’s a growing interest in nontraditional homes, off-the-grid homes, straw bale homes, and the like. People who try to build these homes run into all kinds of issues with permits and local laws. Just as the Yoder vs. Board of Education case helped advance home schooling for all citizens in America, Amish pushback on building code issues invariably will benefit anyone who wishes to build a house which deviates from the cookie-cutter block homes which predominate many suburban neighborhoods.