Religous Freedom Clashes With Environmental Law in Minnesota Court

November 08, 2018 01:16 PM

A group of Amish Minnesotans is taking a battle over wastewater to the courtroom in a move that continues a years-long debate over religious freedom and environmental law.

The Swartzentruber Amish community on Friday filed a lawsuit in Ramsey County Court claiming that complying with a directive to install wastewater treatment systems would violate religious beliefs.

The suit names the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Fillmore County as defendants.

The community, which comprises 150 families and about 900 people, is located near Preston in Fillmore County. 

Families there say they take the water they use for bathing, washing dishes and doing laundry and reuse it on their gardens. But the MPCA and Fillmore County are requiring them to install wastewater treatment systems in the form of either small septic systems or holding tanks.

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS obtained two handwritten letters sent to the MPCA and Fillmore County in 2014 and 2015. They are signed by 105 members of the Swartzentruber community.

The letters quote bible verses to back up their belief that wastewater systems are against their religion. 

"If we take a step in the wrong direction and teach our children and grandchildren and lead them in that direction, we will have to answer for it at the day of judgement. We are asking in the name of our Lord to be exempt and forgiven for this oppression that is being laid on us."      

The MPCA says southeastern Minnesota is known for its Karst geology, meaning the ground is porous and susceptible to groundwater contamination.

"The installation and use of these wastewater treatment systems violates Plaintiffs' sincerely held religious beliefs," the suit reads. "Plaintiffs believe that installation and use of these wastewater systems is contrary to their religious faith and, if they comply with this policy, they will have to answer for this utilization of wastewater systems at the Day of Judgment."

"We've really bent over backwards to try to be understanding and accommodating with these folks," says Mark Schmitt, director of the MPCA's Municipal Division. "We know they come from a different culture and have a different set of beliefs."

The agency says Fillmore County has been waiting five years for the Swartzentruber Amish community to comply. And in fact, Schmitt says, several other Amish families have already started using wastewater systems. 

"So we've held off on our enforcement action for quite some time," he said. "And I think we have been very reasonable in our approach to this."

Said Fillmore County Attorney Brett Corson: "These issues have already been decided in favor of Fillmore County in several different Fillmore County cases which were not appealed. I would note that there is an MPCA decision in Fillmore County on this issue in Court. This case was decided in favor of the MPCA and was not appealed." 

The agency says Amish families who have not complied have been fined $1,000 so far. A court date is expected this week.


Kevin Doran

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