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House panel agrees to relax child-labor rules for Amish

The Associated Press

02.11.99

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WASHINGTON — A House committee voted yesterday to relax federal child-labor protection laws that the Amish believe are threatening their centuries-old religious and work values.

The bill, approved on a voice vote by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, would let Amish teen-agers work in sawmills, woodworking shops and other industries that the Amish deem essential to their livelihood but that the Labor Department deems hazardous.

"We have no reason to believe that Amish young people will be placed at risk," said Rep. William Goodling, R-Pa., the committee chairman. "But the fact is that as the Amish struggle to raise their children and preserve their way of life, the Department of Labor's actions are undermining the Amish culture."

The Amish are known for shunning modern conveniences and are taught to live apart from the world and abstain from worldly goods. They began arriving in the United States about 1720 and settled first in Pennsylvania. Some 150,000 Amish live in 22 states and Canada.

Their religious traditions forbid formal schooling beyond eighth grade, and youngsters are supposed to work after that in apprenticeship settings, such as woodworking.

Some Democrats raised safety concerns, saying a work environment dangerous for adults is even more dangerous for teen-agers.

"It's not reasonable for a 14-year-old to have the same discipline and concentration as adults," said Rep. William Clay of Missouri, the panel's ranking Democrat. "Any inattention can be fatal."

Supporters of the bill countered that the youths would be working with their parents or other members of the Amish community in limited, supervised settings.

The Amish livelihood has traditionally been rooted in agriculture, but many families have turned to woodworking and other small industries because of the growing costs of farming.

That set up a clash with federal labor laws, which prohibit children under 16 from working in manufacturing operations such as sawmills and children under 18 from working in other hazardous occupations, even for tasks that do not require operating mechanical equipment. Several Amish businesses have been fined thousands of dollars.

The legislation sent to the full House would let teen-agers work in those settings under supervision. They still would be prohibited from directly operating mechanical equipment. The measure also would require other anti-noise and safety features, including barriers to protect against wood particles or flying debris.

Similar legislation passed the House last year but died in the Senate. Rep. Joseph Pitts, R-Pa., the bill's chief sponsor, said concerns had been raised in the Senate over the constitutionality of exempting members of one religion. But he says he believes the dispute has largely been resolved, as the Supreme Court has granted the Amish exemptions from such requirements as schooling beyond eighth grade.

Labor Department officials say their foremost duty is to protect youths from occupational hazards, regardless of religion, race, ethnicity or gender. They say they understand the Amish circumstances but believe that safety comes first.

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