DECATUR — A situation in Adams County has led to a First Amendment lawsuit filed by an Amish couple and some neighbors against the Adams County Regional Sewer District, over an outhouse.
According to an article in the Fort Wayne Business Weekly on April 9, members of the Old Order Amish religion, who own property in Decatur, Adams County, state in the lawsuit, the defendants are forcing the group to violate their deeply, long-held religious beliefs against use of electricity and connecting to the outside world by requiring connection to a municipal sewer system. The group says this violates their religious freedom as stated in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The suit was filed March 5 in U.S. District Court Northern District of Indiana, Fort Wayne Division.
Noah B. and Martha M. Schwartz, 2811 N. US 33, Decatur, are the plaintiffs. Several others who live in the affected area have been listed as plaintiffs. The defendant is the Adams County Regional Sewer District that provides oversight and management of sanitary sewer system infrastructure.
The district wants to build a municipal sewer system for certain homeowners in the area of Pleasant Mills and along US 33 in Adams County. The district has notified the Schwartz’s and others in the area constituting Pleasant Mills Municipal Sewer System, that unless an exemption is granted, each homeowner must connect to the system. The homeowners must also provide an easement for free to the district to place a grinder pump and other components. The defendants are denying these allegations.
The Schwartz’s and other plaintiffs are seeking a court order that they not be required to hook into the system and that they may enjoy the right to freely exercise their religion. The defendants are denying that the plaintiffs are entitled to such an order.
The suit states the sewer district does not have a compelling state interest to require the plaintiffs to hook into the system and even if the county does have a compelling state interest, the lawsuit says the least restrictive means of enforcing the law has not been chosen. An example is given in the lawsuit of allowing the Amish to use their own safe, effective and clean methods to remove sewage, one that will not violate their religious beliefs.
One method suggested is to permit them to use a safe, secure outdoor privy for human waste (referred to as black water) and a safe, secure system for grey water disposal.
Citing the First Amendment that states “Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise (of religion),” the point is made that the Amish religious observances include simple living and rejection of modern technology … do not use indoor plumbing, instead they use what is commonly referred to as an outhouse.” Even scripture is noted in the lawsuit, Deuteronomy 23:12-14, which explains how people should relieve themselves and clean up afterward.
The plaintiffs are seeking a declaration and injunction that the defendants may not insist or require the Amish connect to the sewer system or any other municipal sewer system, along with attorney fees.
Adam Bartrom, attorney for the sewer district, emailed a statement to Fort Wayne Business Weekly that stated:
“The Adams County Regional Sewer District takes very seriously its obligation to provide our citizens with access to safe drinking water, sewer systems and solid waste disposal. We also have the highest regard for our citizens’ right to religious liberty. However, our legal and ethical mandate is to ensure the safety of all our citizens and their collective well-being. Accordingly, the district will continue to enforce state law as it is required to do in order to protect the safety and health of the citizens of Adams County. We do not believe that enforcing state law violates the religious freedom of the plaintiffs in this case. Rather, we believe this lawsuit is meritless and in opposition to the rights and safety of the plaintiffs’ neighbors. The district looks forward to the opportunity to defend itself against the plaintiff’s allegations in this lawsuit.”