(CN) --- The case of a southeastern Minnesota Amish community seeking to avoid installing modern wastewater systems is headed back to state courts after a Friday ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court that says local requirements violate their religious rights.
The high court remanded the case of the Swartzentruber Amish community of Fillmore County in southeastern Minnesota to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Justice Neil Gorsuch penned a brief concurrence with the conclusion that “in this country, neither the Amish nor anyone else should have to choose between their farms and their faith.”
The threat to those farms came in the form of a Fillmore County rule requiring the installation of septic systems to process greywater -- a term for non-sewage household wastewater. Plaintiffs Ammon Swartzentruber, Menno Mast, Amos Mast and Sam Miller sued the county and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in 2017 after the county took a series of administrative enforcement actions against Amish families for failing to implement those systems.
The Amish argued that the requirement infringed on their religious beliefs, which require avoidance of most forms of modern technology. County and state officials countered that septic systems could be designed to operate without electricity, and that alternate systems threatened the region's karst landscape, a geological pattern characterized by soluble bedrock and abundant underground drainage.
A bench trial before Fillmore County Judge Joseph Chase concluded with a decision that while the septic-system mandate substantially burdened the Amish’s religious beliefs, those systems were the least-restrictive means available to the government to address public health and environmental concerns.
That decision was upheld by the Minnesota Court of Appeals last year, with Judge Renee Worke writing that an alternate system proposed by the Swartzentruber Amish which employs mulch basins didn’t accomplish the same interests, even with a professionally designed system proposed after an initial homegrown experiment overflowed. The use of mulch basins in states like California and Arizona, Worke wrote, was distinct from Fillmore County’s situation given environmental differences. The Minnesota Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Little of that discussion made it into the Supreme Court’s order, which included two concurrences. Justice Samuel Alito wrote in a single-paragraph comment that the lower court “plainly misinterpreted and misapplied the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act,” but specified little else.
Gorsuch’s concurrence ran longer and fleshed out more of the issues. The state appeals court's decision that there was insufficient evidence on the record to consider the use of mulch basins in more climatologically similar states like Montana and Wyoming, he wrote, gave insufficient weight to those rules.
“To be sure, the county stresses the fact that the ‘record contains no evidence of a single, properly working mulch basin system in Minnesota,'” Gorsuch wrote. “But that is not enough. It is the government’s burden to show this alternative won’t work; not the Amish’s to show it will.”
He went on to excoriate the county for its conduct. “County officials have subjected the Amish to threats of reprisals and inspections on their homes and farms. They have attacked the sincerity of the Amish’s faith. And they have displayed precisely the sort of bureaucratic inflexibility RLUIPA was designed to prevent,” Gorsuch wrote. “I hope the lower courts and local authorities will take advantage of this ‘opportunity for further consideration,’ and bring this matter to a swift conclusion.”
“I’m obviously very pleased with the decision,” said attorney Brian Lipford of Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, who represented the Amish group in their suit. “The Supreme Court gets 8,000 or 9,000 petitions a year and typically acts on about a hundred of them, so we’re honored and humbled to be one of those cases.”
The Swartzentruber community of Amish is an “old order” Amish society, one of the religion’s most conservative sects. The group emerged from a doctrinal split between the Amish of Holmes County, Ohio, in the 1910s, and takes its name from Bishop Samuel Swartzentruber. Ammon Swartzentruber’s relationship to the bishop, if any, is unclear.
Lipford, whose organization works chiefly with low-income clients around that region of the state, said working with the often-reclusive Amish community was “challenging,” but rewarding. “You can’t talk with a client on the phone, that type of thing. It’s more correspondence via traditional mail than any case I’ve ever dealt with. It’s a wonderful community to work with,” he said.
The Amish, he added, came to court “extremely reluctantly.”
“They kind of seek compromise,” Lipford said.
Fillmore County Attorney Brett Corson said that his office was reviewing the decision and would be revising their arguments in keeping with the high court's decision.
"Our basic approach is that… we certainly respect the religious beliefs of our Amish friends and neighbors," he said. "At the same time, we're obligated to protect our environment from untreated wastewater."
Andrea Cournoyer, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said in a statement, “Fillmore County and much of southeastern Minnesota have a porous landscape vulnerable to pollution that impacts our drinking water and streams. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Fillmore County have worked with the Amish community to identify workable solutions to this critical wastewater issue and will continue to do so.”
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