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Winona County reviews Amish rights, buggy concerns (09/08/2013)
By Chris Rogers
Since the rise of the automobile, the coexistence of Amish buggies and motor vehicles has sparked political and legal debate. Winona County may be featured in the next chapter in that history.

Get Amish buggies off the road, rural Utica resident Matt Woodless urged the Winona County Board at an August 27 meeting. After requesting a chance to speak, Woodless addressed the board with his concerns: young buggy drivers and horse manure are hazards on the roadway, Amish buggies tear up roads, and the Amish do not carry conventional liability insurance in case of an accident. Woodless reminded the board of a 2012 motorcycle-buggy accident on Country Road 35 that injured the two motorcyclists.

"I think we need to get the horses and buggies off the road, and I think they need to get some farm liability insurance," Woodless told the board.

County Board members listened to Woodless' complaints and directed county staff to research the issues and talk with Amish families.

If the county tried to kick buggies off the road, "that would be quite a slap in the face," said rural St. Charles resident and Amish man, David Yoder, in an interview. "It's our only way to get around."

Woodless passed out pictures of road damage on County Road 33 south of Utica to board members and told them that buggy wheels and horseshoes had torn up the freshly seal-coated road. County officials were underwhelmed with that aspect of Woodless' complaint. "I wasn't struck that they looked like a real serious problem," Commissioner Steve Jacob said of the photos in an interview. There may be more damage to gravel roads, but the damage in Woodless' photos "looked more cosmetic," he said.

Though we tend to think of roads as being for cars, "buggies are legal users of the roads," said County Highway Engineer Dave Kramer. "We have not seen major deterioration of our roads because of the buggies," he added.

Woodless also expressed concerns that children driving buggies "are having a heck of a time controlling their horses." That concern gained more traction with county commissioners.

Teenage and preteen Amish children do drive buggies, confirmed Custom Furniture and Millwork owner and rural St. Charles Amish man Daniel Gingrich. "That's how they get to school," he said. Yoder explained that parents only trust responsible children to drive buggies. Children learn responsibility at a young age on Amish farms, Yoder and Gingrich said.

Jacob noted that Winona County Amish communities have erected several new schoolhouses and relocated schools to be closer to the pupils' homes in a considerable effort to reduce the number of young buggy drivers on the road. "Their response is nothing but genuine concern," Jacob said. He added that as a child, he drove tractors down the road. "Is that any more or less dangerous than an Amish child driving a buggy? I think we need to make sure that we're treating everyone equally."

Nevertheless, Jacob said that Woodless' concern about young buggy drivers was legitimate. "I have heard of some tightening of those laws in other states," he continued. When asked if he thought the county should consider actions like a minimum driving age for buggies or a buggy driving test, Jacob said, "I think we should look at everything."

County officials also gave some heed to Woodless' concern about Amish families' lack of conventional insurance. For religious reasons, the Amish do not typically carry conventional insurance of any kind, but support fellow community members in times of need. "We don't pay insurance, but our group helps each other out if there is a problem," Yoder told the Winona Post. The Amish avoid private insurance and Social Security because they believe doing so would spurn "Biblical commands that members of the church provide for their own families and assist those in the community in need. Participation is also seen as lacking trust in God to provide the necessities of life," Lawyer Peter J. Ferrera wrote in The Amish and the State.

Amish communities do often use systems known as Amish Aid and Amish Liability Aid, in which the cost of rebuilding a burned-down barn or for paying damages from a lawsuit are spread out among the community, according to Ferrara.

Sometimes petroleum-fired machinery and old-fashioned horsepower clash, such as when a rattling snowplow spooked Gingrich's horse, but when they do, it's often buggy drivers who face the greatest risk, Gingrich pointed out.

Winona County Amish families have advocated for buggy warning signs on roadways in the past. Jacob and other county leaders have renewed discussion of adding such signage. However, Kramer pointed out, putting up signs commits the county to ongoing maintenance, so the number and location of any signs should be deliberate.

At the board meeting Jacob asked Woodless if signage might help. Woodless replied, "The only thing I can think of that would help is if there was a 12-foot shoulder put on the side of the road for the Amish to go down and if the county put a buggy tax on the road and let them pay for it." When asked about that concept, Kramer said that creating a parallel roadway for the Amish would be "quite extravagant." Charging a buggy tax might not be legal, he added, and even if it were legal, it would probably not be economically feasible to collect enough money from the limited number of buggy drivers. In an interview, Jacob said that upcoming road reconstruction projects might offer an opportunity to widen the shoulders for buggies.

At the meeting, County Attorney Karin Sonneman noted that there have been important court cases involving similar issues and freedom of religion, but she supported taking another look at the legal options the county has to address Woodless' concerns. "Our office feels that it is a public safety problem. We also have to respect a way of life, but when it starts to be a public safety issue and a liability issue, then we have to bring everyone to the table and discuss the issues," Sonneman stated. In an interview, she explained that her office will research where the boundary might lie between the Amish religious freedoms and the county's power to tax and enact public safety regulations. It is a "complex" and "thorny" issue, she said.

A long history of state and federal court cases, including numerous U.S. Supreme Court decisions, protect Amish religious freedoms under the U.S. Constitution. The Minnesota Constitution has strong religious freedom protections, as well, and the Minnesota Supreme Court twice ruled in favor of the conservative Fillmore County Amish community on questions of public safety and religious freedom, according to local Amish scholar Lee J. Zook. As County Administrator Duane Hebert suggested at the board meeting, Winona County might run up against constitutional rights if they follow Woodless' exhortation.

When asked if she thought that Woodless' proposal to tax buggies to fund expanded shoulders was constitutional, Sonneman said that she was not sure. We need do more research, she explained. As to the wisdom of taxing buggies, "ultimately, it's really up to the board. My job is to do the legal research: what's possible, what's not possible," she said.

"We pay taxes on the roads," Gingrich said. The Amish pay property taxes, sales taxes, and other taxes, with the exception of Social Security. "This guy who's complaining about horses his dad did the same thing," Gingrich continued. "We didn't change; the other people changed."

Additional regulation on buggies or buggy taxes "would really be a great concern for the Amish," Yoder said. "We like to lead a quiet, peaceful life. We just hope we've got a government that is working for us in a reasonable way."

For Gingrich, concern was mixed with positivity. "If each one respects the other, we can get along," he said.  


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