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Amish appeal case of safety vs. freedom

Back in March, 10 Amish men traveled to Frankfort, Ky., to plead their case before the Kentucky Supreme Court, hoping to persuade the justices to exempt them from the regulation to put an orange safety triangle on the back of their horse drawn buggies.

Some of these men spent 13 days in a Kentucky county jail for refusing to display the signs and for further refusal to pay the fine for breaking a traffic law.

In a season when the headlines are freighted with news of potential airline bombings, the latest presidential election news, the international incident involving a blind Chinese dissident and the continual deaths of soldiers and civilians in Afghanistan it might be easy to overlook such a seemingly minor case, and it’s taken me a while to address it.

But at the heart of this case is a the principle of freedom of religion, a principle that makes our nation great, distinguishes it from many nations in the world, but continues to be exceedingly difficult to define.

The Amish, intensely religious and determined to practice their faith in ways contrary to modern society, continue to test the limits of our toleration. I can’t imagine being the sheriff who had to toss these otherwise law-abiding citizens in jail. With so many other ways for a law enforcement official to spend one’s day such a case seems hardly worth the trouble. Why not just let them alone, one would ask?

Sure, there is the issue of public safety. Slow moving vehicles do need, in theory, to display some sort of device to alert other motorists of potential trouble. One could argue that these orange triangles are for the good of the Amish in spite of themselves. But perhaps even more importantly, one could argue that slow moving vehicles on today’s highways must identify themselves for the safety of other speedier travelers.

I suspect it would be a waste of time to appeal to the Amish on any logical grounds as to why they should accede on this issue. Much of religious practice is not open to compromise. Religious groups have various moral and ethical practices that for them cannot be transgressed. These persons may be orthodox Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Quakers, Muslims or Amish. There are many good people in this nation who refuse to “go along to get along” when it comes to observing the strict codes of their faith.

As far as I could discover the Kentucky Supreme Court has not yet ruled on the guilt or innocence of these men. But one of them summarized the Amish approach succinctly: “It is our religious belief to abide by the law of the land, as long as it does not interfere with our religion. We are asking the legislators to pass a law we can abide by.”

That doesn’t seem like an outrageous request in a nation that claims to accommodate freedom of religion.

Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at creede@wesleymonumental.org.