Pa. Amish men jailed over outhouse

June 12, 2008 11:18:07 AM PDT
Two Amish farmers who said their religious convictions prevent them from operating outhouses in compliance with state sewage laws were sentenced Thursday to 90 days in jail after turning down an offer to do community service.

County sewage officials said Andy Swartzentruber and Sam Yoder do not have permits for outhouses at a school and have been disposing of waste improperly. Both men said the permits would violate their religious beliefs.

A district judge on Thursday offered the men a chance to pay a fine or perform community service in order to avoid jail time.

But Swartzentruber, who owns the property the school is on, and Yoder, a school elder, declined both options. Performing community service also would go against their religion, they said.

"I guess I have to keep with my religion," Swartzentruber said, leaning over at times during the hearing and rubbing his forehead. "I'm going to stay with my religion."

Judge Michael Zungali said he did not see how community service could be against the men's religion. Zungali said he had no choice but to send the men to jail; they have until July 21 to appeal the sentence or report to jail.

"If I get an appeal, it stops me from putting you in jail," the judge said.

The men, along with at least 10 others from the local Amish community, traveled about 90 minutes by horse and buggy to the courtroom. Swartzentruber and Yoder represented themselves, though a public defender, Jim Stratton, consulted with them before the 10-minute hearing at the request of the judge's office.

Sitting in dusty clothes, Swartzentruber and Yoder spoke softly as Zungali asked them questions while their neighbors watched from the gallery.

After the hearing, Yoder said it was against their religion to appeal on their own. However, the men said they would be willing to accept volunteer help from others, or if others offered to pay for an attorney to represent them.

Yoder said they want to settle the issue, though he reiterated that "it was against our church council to live with the outside world."

The men were sentenced to 90 days each on two separate violations, though Zungali ruled they could serve the sentences concurrently.

Oliver Smith, a Westmoreland County farmer who attended the hearing, said he would be willing to pay for a lawyer to defend the Amish, whom he called friends. He has asked the public defender, Jim Stratton, to take the case as a private attorney, though Stratton hadn't been hired as of midday Thursday.

"If you think about it, they're not different from us," Smith said. "They're just 100 years back."

Stratton had represented Yoder in the past on real estate issues. Generally, Stratton said a lawyer representing the Amish in this case may look at trying to appeal the original conviction, as well as the sentencing.

An attorney for the county sewage enforcement agency did not immediately return a telephone message from The Associated Press.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)