Trial begins for Amish who refuse to put safety symbols on carriages
By The Associated Press
EBENSBURG, Pa. A court battle began this week pitting what sociologists say is the most conservative of all Amish sects against Pennsylvania and the safety symbols the commonwealth requires on all horse-drawn buggies.
Members of the Swartzentruber Amish, who live primarily in Ohio but have congregations in 12 states, have refused to affix a 16-inch orange reflective triangle to their carriages. The state requires them on all vehicles that don't exceed 25 mph.
Donald B. Kraybill, an Amish scholar, said in an interview that using the symbol on the carriages would be akin to asking the general public to "put swastikas on the hoods of their cars."
Members of the group instead use 72 inches of gray reflective tape in four pieces on the rear of their carriages and hang a red lantern from the side.
That's not good enough for state police, who have cited more than 20 members of the sect in recent months, prompting their trial en masse. The trial recessed for several weeks to give state transportation officials time to conduct tests to determine the effectiveness of the gray tape.
Reed Smith, one of the region's most prominent law firms, offered to defend the sect for free late last year.
"It is clearly a violation of the Swartzentruber's First Amendment rights, denying their rights to express themselves," said Donna Doblick, a partner at Reed Smith.
The clash between the Swartzentruber and the state began almost immediately after the Andy Weaver group, the most conservative flank of the sect, migrated from Ohio in 1999 and settled in rural Cambria County, about 70 miles east of Pittsburgh. About 80 people belong to the splinter community.
Ohio had made an exception for the sect, letting members use the gray tape they favor instead of the triangles. At least seven other states have similar exceptions.
Pennsylvania officials say the gray strips are not a proven safety measure.
But the brilliant colors, as well as the triangular shape of Pennsylvania's slow-moving vehicle insignia, are considered an abomination to the Swartzentruber, according to Donald B. Kraybill, a professor of sociology at Messiah College in Grantham.
Kraybill, who has authored six books on the Amish and testified by telephone, likened the symbol to a swastika.
"The SMV (slow-moving vehicle) symbol is a direct affront to the Swartzentruber not only because of its color and reflective nature, but because they are being asked to place it on the horse-drawn carriage, the most outward expression of the Amish to the outside world," Kraybill said.
He said the sect believes the symbol is an attempt to take their fate out of the hands of God. The group believes they are to rely solely on God's providence, not a man-made symbol, to protect them.
"In all of my writings, I have emphasized that the Amish are a dynamic people that do not seek to freeze history," Kraybill said. "This sect is the exception. This one seeks to do that."
The Swartzentruber, unlike 85% of Amish, do not use indoor plumbing, Kraybill said. There are no wall hangings in their homes, save a simple calendar. Their dolls have no faces, and homes generally have no mirrors. One of their foremost tenets is the eschewing of all symbols.
The 22 Swartzentruber Amish in court April 10 wore dark gray or black clothing. The men wore dark or straw wide-brimmed hats, and the women wore black bonnets.
They face fines of $100 or community service if convicted. They have said they'll refuse to perform the community service because they'd likely be driven to work sites in motor vehicles, or have to use tools powered by electricity or gasoline.
Levi Zook, 52, who acted as the group's spokesman, said members will leave the state if they lose the case.
Heath Long, Cambria County assistant district attorney, said he believes the Swartzentruber are sincere in their religious beliefs, but that the gray reflective tape is an unproven safety measure. He challenged a field test done by a transportation expert for the defense.
Philip Garvey, a researcher for the Pennsylvania Transportation Institute at Penn State University testified the gray tape favored by the sect is more effective than the orange triangles, when viewed from a passing car at night.
The trial is scheduled to resume May 23.
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