NEWS STORY: Non-political Amish discover the fruits of lobbying

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c. 1998 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ The Amish want Uncle Sam off their backs and out of their business.

Faced with a threat to what they consider one of their most important principles, the Amish, who typically avoid political matters, are quietly _ and somewhat successfully _ lobbying Congress for the right to put their children to work in family-owned sawmills and other businesses the federal government deems too hazardous.

Amish representatives have met with more than 40 members of Congress and their staffs in the year-and-a-half since the Labor Department fined three Amish-owned sawmills for employing teens in dangerous work conditions.

The lobbying effort is an unusual step for a community that seeks to avoid public attention, but one that is paying off. It is being coordinated by the Old Order Amish Steering Committee, an unofficial group formed in the 1960s to deal with problems faced by Amish conscientious objectors that works without the sanction of the church-state separatist religious hierarchy.

Last week, a House committee approved legislation exempting the Amish from provisions of 1938 child labor laws. If passed, the provision will allow children to work in sawmills as long as family or other church members supervise.

At issue is the Amish practice of completing children’s education after the eighth grade by putting them to work in the family business, where they learn farming or carpentry skills.

Suburban sprawl and an increase in Amish population have forced many Amish to look beyond their agricultural roots and they have responded by openning sawmills, furniture and other small businesses during the past decade.

In Lancaster County, Pa., the original U.S. settlement of Amish, about two-thirds of the 1,000 Amish-owned small businesses have been started since 1980.

In dozens of shops along Lancaster County’s back roads, sawdust flies as bearded men in straw hats carefully craft chair legs, chests of drawers and table stands. Some of the faces under those hats are those of teen-aged boys.”You could find a couple thousand in this area working in shops,”said the owner of a woodwork shop near Intercourse, Pa., who declined to identify himself.

In 1996, Labor Department investigators fined an Amish-owned sawmill in Crawford County, Pa., $20,000. Two other Amish-owned sawmills in Pennsylvania also were fined. Authorities said they had violated federal laws prohibiting children under 16 from working in sawmills and children under 18 from working in other hazardous jobs.

The issue is critical for the estimated 122,000 Amish in the United States.”I’d feel more comfortable putting my 16-year-old behind a saw, if he’s familiar with tools, than a stranger,”said the Intercourse woodwork shop owner.”I’d rather have my children in the shop than outside help.” Lobbying by Amish in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana led Rep. Joseph Pitts, R-Pa., who represents about 22,000 Amish in Lancaster County, to author the bill approved by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.”This way of life has been threatened by Department of Labor intervention,”said Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., who represents several of the Amish who were fined.

The fact that the Amish called their lawmakers on telephones and hired drivers to take them to Washington shows their desperation, said one expert on the faith. Amish religious practices prohibit them from having telephones on their property and from owning automobiles.

Though lawmakers such as Pitts and Peterson represent sizable Amish populations, they hear from these constituents only rarely.”Historically, they have really shied away from political activity and involvement. They prefer to be left alone,”said Donald B. Kraybill, provost at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., and author of six books on the Amish.”When they do become involved it’s when a practice they have is being threatened by the state,”he said.

Lobbying is a practice the Amish have had to engage in more and more often as encroachment by the outside world over the past few decades has forced them to be more aggressive in protecting their culture.

Most often it involves state or local issues, such as legislation targeting slow-moving vehicles that could effect Amish horse-drawn buggies.

The Amish’s most successful lobbying effort culminated in the 1972 Supreme Court ruling in Wisconsin vs. Yoder, which found their informal vocational training after the eighth grade was a legal alternative to compulsory school attendance. They have also won an exemption to Social Security laws.

But the effort has not gone without opposition and last week’s action by the House Committee was criticized by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.”Carving out a special congressional exemption from any law for one religious group’s commercial activities raises questions of preferential treatment,”said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United.”Government should treat all religions equally and not grant some groups special favors.” Lynn said the work in the sawmills”is not a religious activity and therefore should not receive special protection.”


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