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ELKTON, Ky. -- Old-world customs are clashing with modern
health standards in some Amish and Mennonite schoolhouses, which
sprang up amid the fertile farmland that attracted them to southern
The dispute revolves around the outhouses that stand near the
one-room schools, and the basins where students wash their hands.
The lack of indoor plumbing is a testament to a strict aversion to
modern conveniences. But it has run afoul of state health
The controversy has cast the Amish and Mennonites as rebels in
Todd County, home to a towering monument to native son Jefferson
A judge closed one school for refusing to modernize its plumbing.
A few others face similar orders to upgrade or risk being shut down.
``They are good folks and dedicated to their beliefs. I don't
fault that at all,'' said Todd County Attorney Harold Mac Johns.
``But we do have these regulations that are designed for their
health, as well as the public health in general.''
For the county's Amish and Mennonite enclaves, the demands from
health regulators strike at the heart of their beliefs.
Those demands are ``infringing on our values and infringing on our
liberties,'' said Henry Leid, a member of the Old Order Mennonite
school committee. ``In some cases, it will force a new way of life on
One problem is that the outhouse toilets are not connected to
septic systems, which violates state health regulations, said Malcolm
Rust, environmentalist for the Todd County Health Department.
The state also requires that schools have running water indoors,
another shortcoming in the Amish and Mennonite schools, he said.
Todd Circuit Judge Tyler Gill ordered the Liberty Road Christian
School closed this fall. The school, which opened in 2000, used
outhouses and obtained water from an outdoor spigot. The Mennonite
school had about 25 students, who have since transferred to other
schools or are being taught at home.
After the ruling, the Kentucky Cabinet for Health Services sent a
memo urging health officials across the state to make sure Amish or
other religious schools were complying with public health laws.
Rust has notified four other Amish or Mennonite schools that they
are out of compliance. Altogether, about 60 students attend West
Fork, Sunny Slope, Country Corner and Miller Valley schools.
Miller Valley's headmaster defiantly replied that the school would
not accept government regulations. He accused Rust of persecuting
For Rust, the accusation cut deep. As a teenager, Rust worked at
an Amish-operated saw mill. He said he regards the Amish and
Mennonites as respectable and resourceful people, and maintained they
are not being singled out.
``How chaotic would society be if everyone just obeyed the laws
they want to obey,'' he said.
The strict standards are especially important because groundwater
contamination is a problem in the western Kentucky county, tests of
wells have shown that most are contaminated with coliform bacteria
and about 15 percent are contaminated with E. coli bacteria.
Leid said the Amish and Mennonite schools take precautions to keep
outhouse waste from seeping into water supplies. The waste goes into
waterproof tanks that are pumped when necessary. Such a system is
permissible in neighboring Indiana, home to many Amish and
Disobedience goes against the nature of Amish or Mennonites,
unless it involves their religious views, said Tom Meyers, a
sociology professor at Goshen College, a Mennonite liberal arts
school in Indiana.
For the most conservative Amish or Mennonites, the lack of indoor
plumbing signifies their separation from the rest of the world, he
``The issues that we find puzzling as outsiders are often boundary
markers, or what I call symbolic separators that separate their world
from the larger, non-old-order world,'' Meyers said.
Mennonites started moving into Todd County nearly a half-century
ago. Other Mennonites and Amish followed in later years, drawn by the
relatively cheap and productive farmland and the slow pace of life.
Amish-driven horse and bug gies are a common sight on roadways in the
area, which is 70 miles north of Nashville, Tenn..
Leid estimated that the county's Amish and Mennonite population
exceeds 1,000. He said the plumbing dispute eventually could spur
some to leave.
The Rutherford Institute, a legal organization that specializes in
civil liberty cases, offered free legal help to fight the
school-closing order. The Mennonites politely declined.
``It is not our practice to hire a lawyer in a case where there
would be a suit,'' Leid said.
The Amish and Mennonites are splintered into different groups. For
some, the introduction of indoor plumbing would be a violation of
religious beliefs. For others, it wouldn't.
A decade ago, a group of Amish in the county built Penchem
Christian Day School, complete with indoor bathrooms and drinking
School treasurer Andy Byler said he didn't consider the outhouses
he used as a boy to be a hardship. But indoor plumbing is better, he
``It's not written up in the Bible that you have to have outdoor
privies,'' Byler said.
At Penchem, the children don't have to bundle up to make a
bathroom trip in the cold. The restrooms are a few feet from the
classroom. Students take turns drinking from two water fountains.
``It's warmer, but I don't see that it hurts them to go outside
either,'' teacher Eva Jane Snyder said. ``It doesn't bother me any
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