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Michigan Amish fight agency order to install septic systems

By The Associated Press

10.18.02

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MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. — A health agency is seeking to force six Amish families to install septic systems, something they say violates their religious beliefs.

Meanwhile, a one-room Mennonite schoolhouse in Elkton, Ky., was ordered closed after school officials there refused to install running water and a septic system for outhouse toilets.

The regional Central Michigan District Health Department in Mount Pleasant wants to bring the Amish families' properties in line with health codes.

The department provides health services and enforces health codes in Arenac, Clare, Gladwin, Isabella, Osceola and Roscommon counties.

"We have a sanitary code," said Mary Kushion, department health officer. "Everybody is a Michigan resident ... and needs to abide by the septic code."

"We can't treat different segments of the population differently. We can't discriminate," she said.

Grand Rapids attorney Howard Van Den Heuvel, who represents the Gladwin County families, said only a small amount of water drains from each home's kitchen sink and wash house. It drains onto a tile in the yard, then seeps into the ground, he said.

Septic systems can involve electrical motors, and the Amish avoid use of electricity.

"The issue has become preserving their lifestyle," Van Den Heuvel told the Detroit Free Press. "That's really a precious thing."

The Amish families joined forces this week with the Rutherford Institute, a private group based in Charlottesville, Va., that promotes religious rights. It filed a petition asking Gladwin County Circuit Court to intervene on behalf of the farmers.

Van Den Heuvel said the water that enters the ground — which the health department wants collected in 1,300-gallon septic tanks — is safe.

"They use organic soap that they make themselves," he said. "This is not a source of pollution. In places like Arizona, where it's really dry, they use this kind of water on their gardens."

The Amish, who call themselves the Plain People, generally shun modern conveniences such as electrical service, telephones, cars, indoor bathrooms and septic systems.

Between 10,000 and 20,000 Amish people live in Michigan, according to the Rutherford Institute.

The case involves Amish members Amos Beechy, Alvin Slabaugh, Daniel and John Mast, Amos Weaver and others.

"It's a classic freedom-of-religion case," said Rutherford President John Whitehead. "They're living the same way they lived in 1525. They believe it's an affront to their religion to modernize."

The Amish families hired a hydrogeologist to look for alternatives. The scientist recommended that they install 300-pound tanks that they could build themselves. The smaller tanks would not require electric pumps, as the larger tanks might, Van Den Heuvel said.

But the health authorities still want to see the larger tanks installed.

Whitehead said the case would be bolstered by a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision. In Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Court ruled that Wisconsin had no right to force Amish children to attend school beyond the eighth grade because that would have conflicted with their religious beliefs.

In the Kentucky case, a judge has ordered the 2-year-old Liberty Road Christian School closed because school officials have refused to install running water and a septic system for outhouse toilets.

Todd Circuit Judge Tyler Gill last month had given the Mennonite school, where about 25 Amish and Mennonite children attend, one month to comply with state sanitation standards.

The school was closed yesterday.

In a handwritten response to the court complaint, school leaders said the upgrades sought by health officials would be detrimental to their traditions and to their desire to maintain a simple lifestyle.

They have notified the Todd County Health Department that they plan to appeal the ruling, department director Leslie Daniels said.

The school has two outhouses and an outdoor water spigot, but no running water inside.

County health officials notified school leaders more than a year ago that they would have to install running water inside the schoolhouse. Health officials later tried to compromise and said they would allow the school to install a septic system if school officials wanted to keep the outhouses.

After school officials refused to upgrade the building's plumbing, the health department filed a complaint in circuit court, seeking an injunction to force school officials to comply with the regulations.

Gill said the school would have to remain closed during any appeal.

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