Two Pennsylvania Amish farmers sentenced to jail in outhouse dispute
U.S. Water News Online
HASTINGS, Pa. —Two Amish farmers who said their religious convictions prevent them from operating outhouses in compliance with state sewage laws were sentenced to 90 days in jail after turning down an offer to do community service.
County sewage officials said Andy Swartzentruber and Sam Yoder do not have permits for outhouses at a school and have been disposing of waste improperly. Both men, who belong to one of the Christian sect's more conservative groups, said the permits would violate their religious beliefs.
A district judge offered the men, who represented themselves in court, a chance to pay a fine or perform community service in order to avoid jail time.
But Swartzentruber, who owns the property the school is on, and Yoder, a school elder, declined both options. Performing community service also would go against their religion, they said.
"I guess I have to keep with my religion," Swartzentruber said, leaning over at times during the hearing and rubbing his forehead. "I'm going to stay with my religion."
Swartzentruber, 52, and Yoder, 53, have until July 21 to appeal the sentence or report to jail. The men said after the hearing that while it is against their beliefs to hire their own attorney, they may accept volunteer help or allow someone else to pay for a lawyer.
Judge Michael Zungali said he did not see how community service could be against the men's religion, suggesting they could do service at a community park near their home, for instance. He said he had been left with no choice but to send them to jail.
"If I get an appeal, it stops me from putting you in jail," the judge said.
The defendants are members of the Swartzentruber Amish. While all Amish shun the modern world, the Swartzentrubers are known for their more severe restrictions on technology and interaction with the outside world.
The men, along with at least 10 others from the local Amish community, traveled about 90 minutes by horse and buggy to the courtroom. Swartzentruber and Yoder represented themselves, though a public defender, Jim Stratton, consulted with them before the 10-minute hearing at the request of the judge's office.
Sitting in dusty clothes, Swartzentruber and Yoder spoke softly as Zungali asked them questions while their neighbors watched from the gallery.
Yoder said they want to settle the issue, though he reiterated that "it was against our church council to live with the outside world."
The men were sentenced to 90 days each on two separate violations, though Zungali ruled they could serve the sentences concurrently.
Oliver Smith, a Westmoreland County farmer who attended the hearing, said he would be willing to pay for a lawyer to defend the Amish, whom he called friends. He has asked the public defender, Jim Stratton, to take the case as a private attorney.
"If you think about it, they're not different from us," Smith said. "They're just 100 years back."
Stratton had represented Yoder in the past on real estate issues. Generally, Stratton said a lawyer representing the Amish in this case may look at trying to appeal the original conviction, as well as the sentencing.
Waste from the outhouses has been collected in plastic buckets, then dumped onto fields. The county is demanding the Amish install a holding tank and contract with a certified sewage hauler for disposal.
Efforts to find other solutions outside of court so far have been unsuccessful, sewage enforcement officials have said.
"Cambria County Sewage Enforcement Agency is sorry that they would not avail themselves of community service," Deborah Sedlmeyer, the agency's executive director, wrote in an e-mail.
Click here to subscribe to e-Water News Weekly!