Amish people and county health inspectors are waiting for a decision from a judge in Michigan about a case that the American Civil Liberties Union says is essential for religious freedom and fair housing.
The three-year standoff is about whether or not 15 Amish households in Lenawee County who follow the Old Order Amish faith must follow county health codes and build septic systems to deal with their own and other people’s waste.
They use simple outhouses with deep holes in the ground where the waste goes.
No one is making them connect their toilets to sewers, which they could do if they didn’t think indoor plumbing attacked their freedom of religion.
Lenawee County Circuit Judge Michael R. Olsaver recently heard arguments from two different lawsuits from 2019 and said from the bench that he would make his decision when he is ready. He didn’t say when it would happen.
John J. Gillooly of the Garan Lucow Miller law firm in Detroit, representing the Lenawee County Health Department in the case, said last week that he thinks the decision will take a couple of months now that the holidays are coming up.
Mr. Gillooly said, “The county health department would like to solve this case as soon as possible.” “We don’t think it had anything to do with religion in any way, shape, or form. They are not following our laws. That’s for sure.”
This month, three years ago, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the county health department’s lawsuits against each of the 15 Amish homes. Attorneys for the ACLU have said that the county is trying to keep Amish people from living in Lenawee County by threatening to seize and destroy their homes if they don’t install septic systems.
Those who were given tickets for breaking the rules were given a bit of a middle ground. The county agreed to let them “build a secure vault with the understanding that they would have it pumped out at their expense once or twice a year,” Mr. Gillooly said.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says that’s not much of a compromise and that such a plan still goes against their religious beliefs.
Dennis Mulvihill, an attorney with the Pepper Pike, Ohio firm Wright & Schulte, LLC, who is working with the ACLU of Michigan to help the Amish families, called the 2019 crackdown by the county health department “a nuisance suit.”
The Fair Housing Center of Southeast and Mid-Michigan contacted Wright & Schulte and asked them to help the ACLU with the case.
“No one admits to discrimination, but you have to look at what the county does and how it acts to figure that out,” Mr. Mulvihill said.
He said there is no proof to back up the county’s claim that other people in the area, or even people in the western part of Lake Erie, could be hurt by how the Amish handle their trash.
Mr. Mulvihill said that if the county wants to protect water quality, it should pay more attention to CAFOs, large farms that feed many animals at once.
Runoff from Amish farms and crop fields using livestock manure from CAFOs can get into local groundwater aquifers and end up in local rivers and streams that flow to Lake Erie.
Amish families in Lenawee County, Michigan, use manure applicators with concentrated animal feeding operations and crop farmers who work for them to spread their waste on crop fields.
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What the Amish use to spread is a mix of animal waste and lime. The lime helps kill pathogens. This is what the ACLU says, and they also say that the amount spread is minimal compared to what is made by animal feeding operations.
Mr. Gillooly said that the county health department is not required to show how the Amish deal with trash terribly.
“Don’t wait for bad things to happen. “That argument is dishonest and doesn’t make sense,” he said. “It’s crazy to think we must wait for something terrible to happen. Even with lime, mixing human waste with animal waste is wrong.
Citations that warn Amish people that their land could be taken away, demolished, or evicted are a warning about worst-case scenarios. Still, their lawyer said that the health department is not planning to do any of those things.
Mr. Gillooly said, “We don’t want to kick anyone out of their homes.” “But we do want everyone to obey.”
The ACLU sees the written language as threats that are a “significant government overreaction,” and it continues to believe that the county’s action is telling the Amish, “either change your religious beliefs and practices, or we will run you out of the county,” Mr. Mulvihill said.
“Given these facts, we think the evidence strongly shows that Lenawee County discriminated against the local Amish community because of their religion,” he said.
Pam Taylor, a retired Lenawee County schoolteacher who has spent years fighting against CAFO manure practices as an activist for Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan, agrees with the county health department.
“Untreated human waste, whether mixed with lime in a dug pit or not, should never be mixed with animal waste and spread on fields where people or animals eat,” said Ms. Taylor, the 2016 winner of the Petoskey Prize from the Michigan Environmental Council.
“In this case, no one should be allowed to ignore health codes,” she said. “It’s too bad that these [Amish] farmers don’t care more about their neighbors and the water quality problems in that area.”