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Amish caught between traditions, child-labor laws

The Associated Press


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CHURCHTOWN, Pa. — Daniel Mark Smucker spends each weekday pulling on heavy presses. Inches from his 5-foot-tall body, the machines punch through several layers of tough leather. He likes the work. He is 15.

In a corner of southeastern Pennsylvania where horse-drawn Amish carriages charm the eye, this Amish teen in black britches and pageboy haircut toils at a harness factory under the watchful gaze of his father — and the critical look of federal labor officials.

Now Daniel Mark and his family are caught in a tug of war. On one side are federal child-labor laws; on the other side are centuries-old traditions of self-reliance and hard work, considered the law of God by some 150,000 Old Order Amish in Canada and 21 U.S. states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Iowa.

"We believe that forced idleness in this age to be detrimental to our long-standing Amish way of raising our children and teaching them to become good productive citizens," Christ K. Blank, national chairman for the Old Order Amish Steering Committee, told Congress this spring.

"Keeping young hands busy also keeps them out of mischief," said the farmer from Gap, Lancaster County.

To guard their way of life, Blank and Daniel Mark's father, Moses Smucker, have emerged from their secluded communities to fight for religious freedom. They have lobbied lawmakers and traveled to congressional hearings in Washington to explain the Amish side of the issue. They tell of failing farms and tearful teens sent home from the family business until age 16, two years after an Amish child finishes school.

Because of the difficulties of farming and the dwindling of available land, some Amish have switched to manufacturing — running sawmills or rope factories, for example — and put their children to work indoors. Federal officials do not intervene when Amish children work in the fields, but toiling near dangerous equipment like circular saws and industrial sewing machines places the youngsters in a protected class.

The Fair Labor Standards Act prohibits children under age 16 from operating power-driven equipment in a manufacturing facility. Children under 14 are not allowed to work in manufacturing businesses at all.

The U.S. House of Representatives approved a measure this fall to alter the labor act and ease child labor laws for Amish youths working in sawmills and woodshops. The Senate has so far failed to act, and the legislation would not help Smucker, anyway.

Until next year, the debate on Capitol Hill is deadlocked.

Smucker promises the battle will continue. He has taken another leap into mainstream society by hiring a lawyer to help change the law and appeal his case against the U.S. Department of Labor. This past summer, he was fined $8,300 for illegally employing four teen-agers - including Daniel Mark and a daughter, Frieda, then 13 - to work around hazardous machinery, sometimes for more than 40 hours a week.

That's not much money for a businessman who 28 years ago turned a small, family harness shop into an enterprise with $6 million-a-year in sales. Nevertheless, the fine is enough to infuriate even a man with a lifelong vow of pacifism. To Smucker, the fine is a judgment of his religion and his role as a caring father.

"This time, they're intruding on my family big time," said Smucker in his barnhouse office, his large workingman hands shaking in frustration. "They're trying to tell me I can't have my own children working for me? My kids have been coming up here since they were 2 years old. This is part of our house. This is where we keep an eye on them. ...

"Don't you see how ridiculous this is? I'm trying to run an honest business here. It is not a hazardous environment. I've taught my kids how to work the machines here," he said. "This is just another example of big government gone nuts."

No matter how the Amish may represent the battle as a matter of religious freedom, the true issue is child safety, said John Fraser, acting administrator of the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division in Washington.

He also pointed out that employing young children gives Amish factories an unfair advantage over non-Amish factories that are not allowed to employ young teens.

"We're not out to get the Amish," Fraser said. "Of course we understand where they're coming from, but our job is to enforce the law, and the law doesn't discriminate."

That's the problem, Smucker retorted. There is a big difference between hazardous machinery, like drill presses and band saws, and his sewing machines and presses, he said. His shop is safe, he argued, and his son agreed.

"I like it here. I've always spent more time here than at the house," Daniel Mark said as he strolled through aisles of fragrant leather saddles, bells and model toy horses.

He smiled as he walked past his 4-year-old sister Rebecca, her security blanket in one hand and a stuffed toy dangling from the other. She skipped away, her long dress flowing, as she passed tables holding Exacto knives and industrial sewing machines.