Amish in Michigan are battling to preserve their religious beliefs and practices, as a health agency tries to force several Amish families to install septic systems.

“The Amish, who call themselves the Plain People, generally shun modern conveniences such as electrical service, telephones, cars, indoor bathrooms and septic systems,” according to the First Amendment Center.

The regional Central Michigan District Health Department in Mount Pleasant wants to bring the Amish families’ properties in line with health codes, Associated Press reported.

“We have a sanitary code,” Mary Kushion, department health officer, told AP. “Everybody is a Michigan resident … and needs to abide by the septic code. We can’t treat different segments of the population differently. We can’t discriminate.”

But Howard Van Den Heuvel, attorney for the Amish families, said the issue is one of their right to freedom of religion.

Van Den Heuvel told AP that only a small amount of water drains from each home’s kitchen sink and wash house. “It drains onto a tile in the yard, then seeps into the ground,” he said.

Septic systems can involve electrical motors, and the Amish avoid use of electricity.

“The issue has become preserving their lifestyle,” Van Den Heuvel told the Detroit Free Press. “That’s really a precious thing.”

The Rutherford Institute, a private group based in Charlottesville, Va., that promotes religious rights, has stepped in to help.

“It’s a classic freedom-of-religion case,” Rutherford President John Whitehead told AP. “They’re living the same way they lived in 1525. They believe it’s an affront to their religion to modernize.”

The Amish families have hired a hydrogeologist to look for alternatives, according to AP.

“The scientist recommended that they install 300-pound tanks that they could build themselves. The smaller tanks would not require electric pumps, as the larger tanks might,” AP reported.

But the health authorities still want to see the larger tanks installed.
The case should be strengthened by 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision Wisconsin v. Yoder, in which the Court ruled that Wisconsin had no right to force Amish children to attend school beyond the eighth grade because that would have conflicted with their religious beliefs, Whitehead told AP.

Jodi Mathews is BCE’s communications director.

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