Thursday, September 15, 2011

Fine for Buggy Safety?

Earlier this week, nine Amish men from Kentucky were sent to jail for not paying traffic fines and court costs. This dispute originated when the men in question were driving buggies on public roads without displaying reflective orange triangles on the back of their vehicles. Displaying these triangular warning signs goes against Amish religious practices and their principles of being "plain people." Many Amish sects believe that wearing bright, eye-catching colors is a display of pride which is viewed as inappropriate under their religious beliefs. Based on these principles, the arrested men do not use orange reflective signs on their buggies. They were willing to use grey reflective tape or lanterns but refused to display the orange signs and have been imprisoned for up to ten days.

The main issue in this dispute concerns the free exercise rights of the Amish individuals. Their desire to refrain from displaying bright colors is a devoutly held religious belief which is accepted as sincere. From the perspective of members of strict Amish sects, the forced display of an orange reflective triangle violates their first amendment right to free exercise of religion. The primary argument of the state officials is that by not displaying bright orange reflectors, the Amish are putting themselves as well as civilians in automobiles in danger. For this reason, the officials feel there is a compelling state interest in forcing Amish buggies to display orange reflective signs. Establishment is not an issue in this case since the traffic law being discussed was created with entirely secular purposes with no intention of affecting any particular religious group.

The officials claim that the forced display of bright, reflective symbols constitutes a compelling state interest. As discussed in Reynolds v. US (1879), many actions can be restricted in order to protect the compelling state interests of peace and order within our society. Traffic laws require all slow moving vehicles to prominently display bright orange reflective triangles on the rear of their vehicles. By having a specific symbol denoting potential dangers on the road, state officials attempt to alert all motorists immediately to potential hazards. Since Amish buggies are considered "slow moving vehicles," they should be required to display orange triangular signs for the safety of all those on public roads. If a different symbol such as grey stripes were used, other motorists may not recognize the hazard as quickly, potentially resulting in additional accidents.

The precedent from Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah (1993) would not mandate judgment in favor of the Amish in this instance. This ruling dictates that a regulation cannot target one specific religious group, similar to the way the Mormons were targeted by the anti-polygamy laws of Reynolds v. US (1879). Since the traffic law being discussed is a statewide law and was not intended to have any religious focus, Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah (1993) does not apply here. The traffic law has the entirely secular purpose of protecting the safety of all motorists regardless of religious beliefs.

While it is important that as few regulations as possible which restrict the free exercise of religion are enforced, in this instance the safety of the public must come first. By driving buggies on public roads which are used primarily by motorists in automobiles going much faster than buggies, the Amish are creating a potential hazard for both themselves as well as other motorists. The requirement that they display a symbol which quickly warns other drivers of the potential danger is not overbroad in scope and is enforced to protect the safety of the populace. If certain groups of Amish individuals do not want to abide by these laws, laws which protect their own lives as much as those of other drivers, then they should not be driving buggies on public roads with speed limits greater than those capable of a one horsepower buggy. The state law does not force all Amish to display a symbol which contradicts their religious beliefs, but rather the law requires cooperation by those driving on state-maintained roads who may pose a danger to the safety of our citizens. If these individuals wish to drive buggies on public roads, then they must abide by traffic safety laws in order to protect the safety of all those on such roads, be they driving a car, truck, or buggy.


Allison S said...

In this case I agree with Harry. The state of Kentucky is not trying to restrict the practices of the Amish or infringe on their beliefs because they disagree with them, rather it is because these buggies are a threat to the safety of other motorists. This is a case that calls into question whether or not the state can keep a group from practicing their beliefs, but when it comes to the safety of its citizens the state must step in. Also, the state was completely respectful of the Amish beliefs when they gave the inmates dark colored jumpsuits to wear because they knew their religion would make them opposed to the typically orange outfits. This shows that the state is not trying to force the Amish to go against their beliefs. In its entirety the state of Kentucky was right to arrest the Amish for failing to comply with the completely secular government laws that are intact for the safety of its citizens.

Kathryn M. said...

Harry’s comment that the law does not establish a preference toward “plain people” is supported by Cochran v. Board of Education (1930) which stated that “individual interests are aided only as the common interest is safeguarded.” This precedent asserts that religious accommodations for individuals may be constitutionally defended when common interests are protected. Thus, by “safeguard[ing]” driving conditions for all people who use public the road through secularly intended law, the state of Kentucky is justified in arresting these nine Amish men.

ChristopherJ. said...

While I understand the argument being made by the Amish, I have to disagree with their logic. Romans 13:1-2 says “let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained by God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.” Simply put, governments have authority because God has given them authority, and disobedience towards man’s laws is by extension disobedience to God. Thus, the Amish in question have, according to this passage, sinned against God by not following the laws of a government that receives its legitimacy from God.
I would also argue that the Amish have actually sinned against God by not paying their traffic fines. Romans 13:7 says “render therefore to all their dues; tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.” By not paying their fines (tribute) to a government that has been established as having received its authority from God, they have actually committed a sin.
In short, I feel that the Amish in question did the wrong thing for the right reasons. In an attempt to stay true to certain religious edicts, they ended-up violating other ones.

Brantley Gasaway said...

Christopher, two comments:

1. In this class, at stake is a constitutional issue and not a theological one. As the Supreme Court ruled in Watson v. Jones, "The law knows no heresy, and is committed to the support of no dogma, the establishment of no sect." So focus not on whether you agree with our subjects' theology but on the constitutional issue at stake.

2. IF, however, their theology was our focus, do you really want to make this argument? Do you level the same judgment and use the same interpretations of Romans 13 against the American colonists who treasonously rebelled against England? Do you expect all Christians to submit to all governments in all contexts? Be careful about proof-texting, for there are plenty of other biblical passages that suggest the legitimacy of disobedience to some governments under some circumstances.