What would Amish build?

amish homesI think it's tremendously interesting when the local newspaper gives a local story a completely different angle than the non-local news source. Case in point is the difference between the Watertown Daily Times coverage of their town's attempt to crackdown on Old Order Amish home builders for violating housing codes (think no smoke detectors) and the Associated Press. Just compare the leads. Here is the Daily Times:

MORRISTOWN -- The town is making a statewide appeal for help in prosecuting Amish men for building homes without permits.

Ten members of the conservative religious group have been charged in the clash between building codes and religious tenets that shun modernization. Town councilors sent a letter Saturday to newspapers to pressure legislators and the state Department of State to provide financial and technical help in dealing with the pending trials.

And here is the Associated Press:

MORRISTOWN, N.Y. (AP) -- The religious rights of 10 Old Order Amish men are being violated by an upstate New York town that is selectively prosecuting them for building homes without permits, a national public interest group charged Tuesday.

Meanwhile, elected officials in rural Morristown accuse the state of turning its back on them in the dispute, which the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty said involves discrimination against the Amish.

The question comes down to whether the religious rights of the Old Order Amish can be trumped by the will of the majority. The legislative branch of the state's government puts in the housing codes, and local executive branch officials are trying to enforce them. Will the courts step in and declare that the majority can't require this minority group to follow their rules for religious reasons? We'll just have to wait and see.

What is fairly clear is that the local newspaper seems to have a bit more sympathy for the local officials. They are portrayed as merely trying to enforce the laws on the books, while the Amish and their antiquated version of the German language is creating a real hassle and causing the town a load of legal costs.

While the Daily Times sheds tears for the local officials who are resisting the urge to blink in their battle with the Amish, the AP gets to the heart of the story and sheds light on what is likely to happen and the legal ramifications of this case:

On Tuesday, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C.-based legal organization, joined the dispute, sending a 5-page letter to the town board, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division.

"Continued prosecution of these cases would result in the violation of a number of federal constitutional and statutory provisions that protect religious and linguistic minorities, as well as New York's own constitutional protections for religious exercise and against discrimination," attorney Lori Windham wrote.

In a telephone interview, Windham said "it is illegal to selectively enforce a law against a particular religious group, unless there is a demonstrated compelling government interest in that enforcement, and the government uses the least restrictive means available."

This story is worth following if only to see how the local paper continues to cover the story. Is the real reason local officials are pursuing the Amish because they are concerned that other builders will try to skirt housing ordinances? Is there a market outside the Amish community for homes that don't meet the state's building codes? There is something fishy going on in Morristown, N.Y., and hopefully it will be revealed.

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