Amish couple sue over Homeland Security photo rule

Pittsburgh, USA - A western Pennsylvania Old Order Amish couple filed a lawsuit - violating their belief in nonresistance - to safeguard another cherished belief, the right not to be photographed.

The couple are suing the federal government because immigration officials have refused to grant them an exemption from having their photos taken. The photos are required so the husband - a Canadian citizen - can become a permanent resident, and eventually apply for citizenship.

The Old Order Amish, who shun modern conveniences like automobiles and electricity, believe having one's picture taken violates the Biblical injunction against making "graven images." But the couple's pro bono attorney, Michael Sampson, acknowledged the couple could risk excommunication if their Amish community learns of the lawsuit, so he asked a federal judge to let them proceed as "John and Jane Doe."

"Excommunicated members of the Amish faith face punishment far greater than 'stigmatism,'" Sampson argued in court papers filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh. "They face isolation from family and friends and alienation from members of the church community."

The couple were identified in previous news accounts about their plight.

In an earlier lawsuit, a judge denied their request to proceed anonymously. In the lawsuit filed Wednesday, the couple also seeks to remain anonymous, because they could be shunned or otherwise ostracized if the lawsuit were perceived to resist government authority.

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, the forerunner to the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Service, sometimes allowed immigrants to waive the photo requirements for religious reasons. Because of anti-terrorism efforts, there are no longer any exceptions based on religion.

But Sampson said the agency still allows some elderly or infirm people to avoid being photographed, and believes an exemption should be made in this case, too.

"We're not asking the government to do something they don't do," Sampson said. "The government does grant exemption to other individuals."

The husband, 31, and wife, 24, were married in June 2001 in Clarion County while the man was in the country as a nonimmigrant visitor. They have since had two children, a daughter, nearly 4, and a son, who will soon be 2.

Since then, the couple have sought to avoid the photo requirement, but have provided fingerprints, birth certificates and other documents needed for immigration.

They learned in February that they must still submit two photographs, and in August sent a letter to a Homeland Security official again seeking an exception.

The couple has yet to hear back. For now, the husband is entitled to stay here while the government attempts to resolve the matter, Sampson said. But they live in fear of a deportation order.

"The reality is, we've exhausted every possible step we can take to protect them," Sampson said. "If my clients don't file this lawsuit, they're at risk of having this young family torn apart, separated by the Canadian-U.S. border."

U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan, who will defend the suit, declined to comment on it Friday because her office has not been served with it.

After a lawsuit was filed two years ago, Buchanan defended the photo requirement by saying Homeland Security officials can't do a thorough background check on any immigrant without a photo.

"They can't go out and show people a fingerprint and say, 'Do you recognize this fingerprint? What can you tell me about this person?'" Buchanan said.

Sampson said the lawsuit is not meant to harm the government and said the couple hopes to still settle the matter through normal channels.

"Anytime they want to talk, we're available," Sampson said.