Amish object to orange traffic safety reflectors

`Gaudy' devices represent faith in man instead of God, sect declares

May 19, 2002|By Chris Gray | Chris Gray,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

EBENSBURG, Pa. -- The traffic backed up for miles on the day the Swartzentruber Amish went to court, their slow-moving buggies clogging the twisty roads outside this Cambria County seat.

None of the 22 members of the Plain People's strictest sect wanted to be there. Their religion, a conservative Amish offshoot that essentially stops time in 1913, forbids electricity, running water and refrigeration, let alone lawsuits.

But the Pennsylvania State Police have been adamant that the Amish affix the reflective orange triangles, required for vehicles that do not exceed 25 mph, to the back of their buggies. The Swartzentruber Amish, who believe the "gaudy" triangles represent faith in man-made symbols instead of God, have refused. Now the group faces trial en masse for the 24 traffic citations its members have accumulated over the last 18 months -- and they say they will leave Pennsylvania if they do not win.

The case, which went before a judge on April 10 and will continue May 23, is a clear violation of the Amish people's freedom to exercise their religion, said Witold Walczak, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Greater Pittsburgh Chapter. "The Amish do not want to jeopardize public safety," Walczak said. "Their objection is to this particular symbol."

A stricter code

Most Amish, including the Old Order Amish familiar to Lancaster County, place the triangles on their buggies without complaint. But the Swartzentruber Amish, a conservative sect originally based in eastern Ohio, follow a stricter Ordnung, or code of conduct.

In Ohio and six other states, the Swartzentruber Amish may outline the back of their buggies with four strips of gray tape that reflect white when headlights shine on them. They also hang a red lantern from the buggy at night.

These precautions work as well as the orange triangle, according to Philip Garvey, a researcher with the Pennsylvania Transportation Institute at Penn State University. In a brief filed with the court, Garvey said there is no evidence that the orange triangles reduce accidents, and that the gray tape is easier to detect at night.

Pennsylvania will put its own transportation expert on the stand when the trial resumes this month, Assistant District Attorney Heath Long said. He noted that the northwest corner of Cambria County where the Amish live is hilly, with many sharp turns and blind corners.

"There have been some very close calls," he said.

While the Amish have won sympathy outside the county, most local residents believe the buggies pose a hazard and that their owners should follow the same rules as everyone else, he said. Krissie Rummel, a resident of nearby Belsano, almost hit a buggy as she traveled Route 271 one night. The lantern and the gray tape provided little illumination on the dark road, she said.

"Everyone has their beliefs, but you have to put safety first," she said. "We get in trouble with the police for having a headlight out. Maybe I should put a lantern on my windshield and see how far I make it."

With these problems in mind, the state police approached the 80 Amish known as the Andy Weaver Swartzentruber sect almost as soon as they moved to Cambria County in 1997, Long said.

The group selected the area, about 30 miles north of Johnstown, for its cheap and available land, Amishman Levi Swartzentruber said.

Dressed in dark blue pants and shirt with a straw-brimmed hat covering his hair, Swartzentruber was clearly uncomfortable articulating his views to an English, or outsider. Although his buggy has the gray tape, he has had several near-accidents with cars over the years. Visibility is not the issue -- it is drivers who become impatient with the slower horse and buggy, he said.

"If they can't see a bigger object, how can they see a smaller one?" he said of the triangle. As for their threat that they will pull up stakes if the law is not on their side, "we didn't know what else to say," Swartzentruber said. "We can't use the triangles."

Invoking the spirit of the commonwealth's founder, Walczak said that strict interpretation of the law flies in the face of William Penn's ideals.

"If other states can accommodate the Amish religious beliefs, why in Pennsylvania, which is known as the cradle of religious liberty, can't we do so?" he said.

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