Amish Bridle at Buggy Rules

Frankfort, USA - For 13 days in January, Jacob Gingerich sat in a county jail in rural Kentucky after refusing to do a seemingly simple thing: affix an orange safety triangle to the back of his horse-drawn buggy to warn drivers of the slow-moving vehicle.

On Thursday, the cases of Mr. Gingerich and nine other members of an Amish sect ended up here before the Kentucky Supreme Court, another in a series of conflicts between religious beliefs and government that have been playing out around the country.

Mr. Gingerich was ticketed for violating state traffic law and refused to pay the associated fines and fees. The 40-year old is a member of the Swartzentruber Amish, a strict sect who stress modesty and simplicity and say the triangle violates their code against garish displays.

"I don't have to pay them to prosecute me for my religion," said Mr. Gingerich in an interview. He and the eight others were thrown in jail in Graves County, Ky., on charges of breaking the traffic law.

On Thursday, he and 14 other Swartzentruber Amish men from across the region traveled hundreds of miles to an hour-long hearing at the state Supreme Court, which will decide whether to overturn the convictions.

The intensity of the Amish group's beliefs is mirrored in other recent religious disputes. Some involve houses of worship objecting to zoning regulations or civil courts deciding how to apply religious law, such as the Islamic legal code called sharia, in domestic disputes. One of the most prominent is the national debate over an Obama administration policy requiring religious employers to cover contraception in employee health plans.

"While some of these claims have been around for a while, others demonstrate a new assertiveness by religious groups and people of faith," said Steven K. Green, a law professor at Willamette University in Salem, Ore.

The Swartzentruber Amish in other states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee, have engaged in, and in some cases won, battles seeking alternatives to the triangle, according to the Amish and their lawyers.

On Thursday, William Sharp, an American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky lawyer who represented the Amish, told the Kentucky court that the sect has long refrained from affixing the triangle to their buggies. Aside from the color, which they consider to be too bright, they say the shape represents the holy trinity, and they don't believe in wearing or carrying religious symbols for protection.

Mr. Sharp argued that the high court should vacate their convictions because there are alternatives to the triangle, which is "contrary to the central and sincerely held beliefs of the Swartzentruber Amish."

Assistant Attorney General Christian Miller, arguing for the state, said the triangle is "neutral toward religion" and the symbol is a necessary safety provision for "black buggies on black asphalt roads" because other drivers "aren't able to see them in time before they hit them."

The simple lives of the Amish posed challenges in communicating with their Louisville-based lawyer and lawmakers in Frankfort. Mr. Gingerich's order doesn't use electricity or telephones, or drive motor vehicles. A non-Amish family nearby served as an intermediary to facilitate weekly communication.

The men who traveled to the hearing Thursday, wearing long beards and traditional black felt hats, traveled by bus, permissible because the buses were headed toward the state capital anyway.

Mr. Gingerich, the father of 12 children, relocated his family from Tennessee a decade ago to farm corn, produce, tobacco, and oats in rural Kentucky. "It is our religious belief to abide by the law of the land, as long as it does not interfere with our religion," he told lawmakers in a letter. "So now we are asking the legislators to pass a law that we can abide by."

The Amish are hopeful that legislators will give them an alternative to the triangle. After a letter-writing campaign by the Amish, lawmakers are finalizing legislation that would allow the sect to use reflective tape and a pair of lanterns instead.

State Sen. Ken Winters, a Republican whose district includes Graves County, said he has become somewhat of an expert in reflective tape. He said the effort was not only about helping to "protect someone when there is an issue related to their religious freedom," but also to provide "a safer environment for the Amish people on the highway with their buggies."

State Rep. Fred Nesler, a Democrat whose district includes Graves County, has been one of the few lawmakers opposing a change in the triangle law.

"My position is that this is a safety issue," Mr. Nesler said. He fears that reflective tape won't be as visible to other drivers in daylight as the orange symbol: "Just because they have some religious objections to our law, how can they get it changed without some deep study?"

The Amish have a long history of seeking accommodation for their beliefs, such as exemption from military service. But they say they don't feel any need to apologize for how they live. "I don't believe it was us that has changed, it was everybody else that changed." said Mose Gingerich, a 42-year-old Amish man from Grayson County, Ky., who attended Thursday's hearing.