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Steel Wheels: Amish can tear up roads, and that’s a good thing

Steel Wheels: Amish can tear up roads, and that’s a good thing

I think this case, Mitchell County v. Zimmerman, is telling us on page 2 that the entire Amish gig rests upon Romans 12:2, in particular, the opening phrase:  And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.

I’ll be honest.  It seems to me rather extreme and a tad convoluted to take those seven words and only go around in a horse and buggy yet if some outsider wants to go on a McDonald’s run, they’re piling into the backseat of the car and counting nickels to see how many Big Macs and supersized fries they can clog their arteries with.  But when it comes to another’s religious beliefs, it’s usually best to nod and smile.  We all believe or not based upon intensely personal needs and motivations.  Enough said.

So out in Iowa, the Amish have this rule about driving tractors.  From the case:

The church determined farm tractors could be used in addition to the traditional horse and buggy, but would have to be refitted with steel wheels to maintain small-scale farming and a close-knit community. If a church member drove a tractor that did not have steel wheels, he or she would be barred from the church. The steel wheel rule helps insure that tractors are not used for pleasure purposes and thereby displace the horse and buggy.

First, it’s “ensure” – to make more likely – not “insure” – to financially underwrite.  That drives me nuts.  Anyway … putting steel wheels on the tractor makes sure that, um, you won’t enjoy something that would otherwise be enjoyable.  That’s kinda kinky.  I smell vinegar and leather.  Then why isn’t it OK to drive a car – as long as it’s a Ford Pinto or a Chevy Chevette?  Cram ten or so unbathed Amish into one of those and, trust me, no one’s enjoying the ride.  Look, I’m telling you, the more you suppress these urges the more you’re encouraging deviant behavior exploring those very same urges.  Rubber fetish.  Big time.  OK.  Sorry.  I’ll move on.

Poor old Mitchell County dumps $9 million into white-topping their roads – that’s resurfacing with a layer of concrete.  And wouldn’t you know it, those pesky steel wheels on Amish tractors are ripping them up.  In true governmental fashion, the county cranks out a law about using certain protrusions on wheels:

No person shall drive over the hard surfaced roadways, including but not limited to cement, concrete and blacktop roads, of Mitchell County, or any political subdivision thereof, a tractor or vehicle equipped with steel or metal tires equipped with cleats, ice picks, studs, spikes, chains or other projections of any kind or steel or metal wheels equipped with cleats, ice picks, studs, spikes, chains, or other projections of any kind.

Seems OK, but don’t so quick to judge.  The county ordinance referenced a state law addressing the same issue and stated that the state law would continue in effect – the county ordinance was in addition to the state law.  The state law allows for some exceptions:

1. Farm machinery with tires having protuberances which will not injure the highway.
2. Tire chains of reasonable proportions upon any vehicle when required for safety because of snow, ice, or other conditions tending to cause a vehicle to skid.
3. Pneumatic tires with inserted ice grips or tire studs projecting not more than one-sixteenth inch beyond the tread of the traction surface of the tire upon any vehicle from November 1 of each year to April 1 of the following year, except that a school bus and fire department emergency apparatus may use such tires at any time.

Now we begin to form the issue.  School buses are free to rip up the road year-round; Amish can’t do the no-fun steel wheels at any time.

Starting on page 8, the Iowa Supreme Court begins a journey through religious freedom and prohibitive laws.  It’s a good read.  The substance for us is shorter.  The law is facially neutral.  That is, when you read the ordinance, it is applied to everyone equally.  The Amish are not being singled out by the text of the law.  But beyond the words, is it operationally neutral?   The court seems to find a problem with the ordinance prohibiting a pre-existing activity – steel wheels on Amish tractors – bouncing of a new law, but doesn’t come to a conclusion.  Rather, it segues to general applicability.

The court recalls an opinion written by SCOTUS Justice Alito when he was still sitting on the 3d Circuit.  The Newark (NJ) Police Department had a rule – no beards.  Must be trying to emulate the NY Yankees.  There were two exceptions to the no-beard policy:  Undercover officers and where shaving was a medical impossibility.  I’m not familiar with a condition that makes shaving a hazard to one’s health, but I’ll accept that it exists.  A Muslim sues.  His religion apparently requires him to have a beard.  Whatever.  The City of Newark failed to explain why the goal of their policy – something to do with morale – was not undermined by medically required beards but was by religiously required beards.  The law failed under this “general applicability” review.  The court quoted another decision:

A law fails the general applicability requirement if it burdens a category of religiously motivated conduct but exempts or does not reach a substantial category of conduct that is not religiously motivated and that undermines the purposes of the law to at least the same degree as the covered conduct that is religiously motivated.

That’s why the law failed:  The impact of medical beards could not be distinguished from the impact of religious beards.  So if you allow one, you must allow the other.  If you don’t, then you’re impinging on the free exercise of religion in favor of a secular activity.

Turning back to the Amish case, the court reviewed the Iowa law which was incorporated, if you will, by reference into the county ordinance.  The three exemptions listed above can be harmonized in that they protect “the roads from damage except when necessary for safety reasons.”  Ah, but then what about the year-round school-bus exemption?  That’s where it fails.  It sets that secular exemption above other activities.  Further, the county ordinance gets smacked here:

Moreover, the County declined in September 2009 to regulate various other sources of road damage besides steel wheels. Rather, it chose to prohibit only a particular source of harm to the roads that had a religious origin. For example, although state law contains various limits on the overall weight of vehicles and also limits weight per inch of tire width, see Iowa Code §§ 321.440(2), .463, Mitchell County elected not to cover these matters in its ordinance.

Citing another case, the court slams it home:

A law “fails the general applicability requirement if it burdens a category of religiously motivated conduct but exempts or does not reach a substantial category of conduct that is not religiously motivated and that undermines the purposes of the law to at least the same degree as the covered conduct that is religiously motivated.”

The law:  School buses good; Amish steel wheels bad.  More: Road damage good; Amish-caused road damage bad. That doesn’t fly.  Too bad for the county.  The court then, realizing that religious freedom is being impinged, applies the strict-scrutiny test.  That’s a constitutional standard worthy of its own post.  It’s sufficient to state here that when strict scrutiny applies, the government is usually toast.

And so it is in this instance.

The other side of religion and law is the Establishment Clause.  The baseline case is Lemon v. Kurtzman.  Here’s the short version.

The bottom line to all of this is that the law needs to accommodate religion.  Jefferson’s “wall of separation” has been taken way out of context in both his words and his non-existent role in writing or being present for the debates for either the Constitution or the Bill of Rights.  The dude was in France.  At best, he was seeing the action through the eyes of John Adams in letters sent to Paris.

Go Amish!

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About Clyde

Clyde is the lead attorney in the firm. Licensed to practice in 1993, he's also taught Constitutional and Criminal Law for several years at a private university, primarily at the Master's level.

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