Amish families suing Adams Co. over First Amendment rights after being ‘forced’ to hook up to sewer

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ADAMS COUNTY, Ind. (WANE) — Several Old Order Amish in Adams County are suing the county sewer district stating a violation of their First Amendment right to religious freedom.

“The case is about an infringement by the government of the Amish, core religious belief,” said Attorney Richard W. Schulte. “[Adams County] was forcing the Amish to hook up to a sewer system and, as you know, they don’t believe in using electricity due to religious beliefs.”

According to court documents filed in the U.S. District Court Northern District of Indiana, attorneys with the Amish families state that the Adams County government wants the Amish to conform to the rest of the community in regard to wastewater and plumbing. The use of electricity violates the traditional beliefs of the Amish.

More than 6,000 Amish call Adams County home making it one of the state’s largest populations of Amish. Old Order Amish are descended from Amish Mennonites and are known for having strict rules involving dress and way of life. Unlike other groups members of the Old Order Amish, communities avoid modern technologies like cars, electricity and tractors.

The Adams County Regional Sewer District wants to build a municipal sewer system for certain homeowners in the Pleasant Mills area along U.S. 33 in the county. According to the lawsuit the sewer district informed several Amish families that each homeowner must connect to the sewer system. The district also requires that affected homeowners must provide an easement for free to the district to place a grinder pump and other components.

“We attempted to reach a settlement with the county,” Schulte said. “In regards to the sewer system and hooking up and using electric pumps the county said there is no way to compromise. They are not offering accommodation for their core religious beliefs whatsoever.”

Richard W. Schulte is an attorney with Wright and Schulte law firm who is representing the Amish families in Adams County. The law firm is representing the families for free and did so because of the “discrimination against a minority religion and its an abuse of power by a local government.”

The lawsuit states that the plaintiffs, Amish, are seeking an order from the court that they not be required to hook into the system “and that they may enjoy the right to freely exercise their religion, as guaranteed by the Indiana and United States Constitutions.”

The defendants, Adams County, deny that the plaintiffs are entitled to any such order.

Attorney’s for Adams County Regional Sewer District declined to do an interview but did send the following notes.

The Adams County Regional Sewer District takes very seriously its obligation to provide our citizens with access to safe drinking water, sewer systems, and solid waste disposal. We also have the highest regard for our citizens’ right to religious liberty. However, our legal and ethical mandate is to ensure the safety of all our citizens and their collective well-being. Accordingly, the District will continue to enforce state law as it is required to do in order to protect the safety and health of the citizens of Adams County.  We do not believe that enforcing state law (as we are required to do) violates the religious freedom of the Plaintiffs in this case.  Rather, we believe this lawsuit is meritless and in opposition to the rights and safety of the plaintiffs’ neighbors.  The District looks forward to the opportunity to defend itself against the Plaintiffs’ allegations in this lawsuit.

 Adam Bartrom  Barnes & Thornburg LLP and attorney for Adams County Regional Sewer District

Attorney’s for Adams County also issued a statement to the court to order allow the Indiana State Department of Health, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, the Adams County Health Department, and county commissioners, as “necessary parties to this litigation.”

The Amish are looking for the judge to not require that the Amish connect to any municipal sewer system. They also want attorney fees covered.

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