Amish,’ majority’s lifestyles collide in Todd County

Tom WestSeveral years ago, I attended a presentation by a Thomas Jefferson impersonator. Speaking as if the year were about 1805 instead of 2005, “President Jefferson” began his talk by saying, “We live in a 4 mile per hour world.”

He went on to explain that people travel about 2 mph walking and about 6 mph by horse, so it averages out to 4 mph.

I was thinking about “Jefferson’s” speech recently because of a brouhaha that has developed in Todd County.

Todd County is home to four Amish communities. The Todd County Amish travel by horse and buggy, and one sees them often when traveling near Browerville and Long Prairie.

They mostly travel on the highway shoulder although occasionally they move down into the ditches, depending upon the time of year and weather conditions.

Earlier this year, their lifestyle and the modern lifestyle of most Americans literally collided in two separate accidents between a motor vehicle and a horse and buggy. Both accidents happened in daylight and both resulted in the driver of the motor vehicle being ticketed for “inattentive driving.”

This riled some of the non-Amish majority, and a week ago, about 25 people led by former Todd County Commissioner Dean Mieners showed up to present a petition to the Todd County Board, asking that the laws be applied equally to all citizens.

Their complaints about the Amish begin with the fact that two of the four Amish communities refuse to put “slow moving vehicle” (SMV) signs on the back of their buggies. For the Amish, it is an issue of religious freedom. They don’t believe in the use of “worldly symbols” which they deem such signs to be, but prefer to put their faith in God.

Todd County Sheriff Pete Mikkelson takes umbrage at the complaint that the Amish are being given special rights, at least as far as the traffic laws are concerned. He notes that all four Amish communities put reflective tape on the backs of their buggies. One uses a battery-powered head lamp, and the other three use lanterns when traveling at night.

The simple truth is that public safety becomes an issue when we try to combine a “60 mph world” with a “4 mph world.”

The core issue, however, rests in some basic constitutional rights. The first thing we all should note is that even our most basic constitutional rights are not absolute. Freedom of religion does not allow for the use of illegal drugs. Freedom of the press does not allow libel. Freedom of speech does not allow one to cry “Fire” in a crowded theater.

In the case of SMV signs, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in a 1990 case, Minnesota vs. Hershberger, that the Amish don’t have to use SMV signs.

It was a narrow call. The state Constitution goes into greater detail in defining freedom of religion than the broader First Amendment language that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. …”

In the Hershberger ruling, the High Court actually ruled in favor of the Amish because the state failed to demonstrate that a less restrictive alternative to the signs (e.g. reflective tape) was impossible.

Had the state done so, maybe the high court’s ruling would have been different. As it stands, the sheriff’s hands are tied as far as enforcing the SMV sign law.

Mikkelson reminds motorists to stay vigilant. He said, “There are numerous hazards on our roads every day. There are individuals on bicycle, people out for a walk, farm implements and Amish buggies.”

One thing missing from the debate so far is why the Amish behave the way they do. Their lifestyle may seem odd to the majority, but if one searches the Internet, one learns that the reason the Amish live in a 4 mph world isn’t because they are afraid of technology or the use of finite fossil fuels.

It is because they believe strongly in the importance of maintaining strong community bonds, that God commands us to take care of one another. They believe that automobiles tend to take us too far from home, thereby weakening those bonds. When one thinks about how easy it is to go tearing off to a regional shopping center, it is also easy to forget that such actions tend to weaken the community back home.

The Amish don’t even participate in Social Security because they believe it is the responsibility of the local community, of family, friends and neighbors, not the federal government, to take care of the elderly.

I  don’t mean to proselytize for the Amish here or call for scrapping Social Security. The point I’m trying to make is that there are many different ways to go through this life, so before we demonize one another, let’s all, Amish and non-Amish alike, instead be more aware and a little bit more tolerant of different lifestyles.

I think the Amish should do more to make their buggies visible to motorists at night out of respect for the property rights and personal well-being of all human beings who are traveling this planet with them. But even if they don’t, I think the rest of us need to simmer down and recognize that these aren’t bad people because they seem to be ignoring some laws. Instead, try harder to understand that some people do subscribe to a higher law, and that right is duly protected under both the state and federal constitutions.

Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Peach. He may be reached at (320) 352-6569 or by e-mail at tom.west@ecm-inc.com.

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