Lawmakers in Kentucky have moved a step closer to discarding a longstanding traffic safety measure in the name of religious freedom, despite dire warnings that the move could lead to mayhem on the state’s roadways.
The House voted 90-9 to pass legislation that would allow the Amish to use strips of reflective white tape on the backs of their horse-drawn buggies rather than bright orange slow-moving vehicle triangles that some object to on religious grounds.
The measure now goes to the Senate where it stands a good chance of passing with some minor modifications. Gov. Steve Beshear said he would review the bill carefully if it gets to his desk.
The Senate has already approved similar legislation intended to keep the Amish from being arrested for not displaying the orange signs on their drab buggies. Some already have spent up to three weeks in jail for standing up for their religious beliefs.
The bills are House Bill 133 and Senate Bill 75.
“This bill is about freedom,” said state Rep. Johnny Bell, D-Glasgow, sponsor of the House version. “Are we here to persecute people, to prosecute people, to put them in jail, incarcerate them, throw them behind bars because they’re out driving a horse and buggy?”
Bell’s legislation would allow buggies to be outlined with 2-inch-wide strips of special tape that makes them shine brilliantly in the dark when they reflect car lights.
But Rep. Fred Nessler, D-Mayfield, warned that the tape would do nothing to make the buggies more visible in daylight, which could lead to deadly rear-end collisions on the rural stretches of highway around his hometown where Amish have settled over the past decade.
“These buggies are dangerous if they have lights flashing on them and running all over them,” Nessler said. “There’s going to be people hurt and killed.”
State Rep. Martha Jane King, D-Lewisburg, said allowing buggies on highways with semi-trucks is dangerous, especially if the buggies aren’t displaying the florescent orange triangles.
King warned that the truckers carrying loads of up to 20 tons need ample warning that they’re approaching the buggies so they’re able to slow down.
“That’s like stopping a little freight train,” she said.
The legislation, which would go into effect immediately after being signed by the governor, was prompted by recent jailing in Graves County of Amish men of the conservative Swartzentruber sect for their refusal to pay fines in traffic cases caused by their not using the signs. The defendants have appealed their convictions to the Kentucky Supreme Court on religious grounds.
Justices have set oral arguments in the case for March 15. Lawmakers could resolve the issue sooner by passing either the House or Senate bill.
Sen. Ken Winters, R-Murray, said Tuesday he’s willing to call for a Senate vote on the House bill with a few changes to better protect the Amish.
“I’m out for their safety and the safety of everyone who shares the roads with them,” said Winters, sponsor of the Senate bill.
Winters wants to add provisions from his bill that requires the back and sides to be outlined in 1-inch-wide reflective tape as well as the front left corner. His bill also requires lanterns to be used on the buggies at night. The one on the left side has to be a foot taller than the one on the right.
Winters’ bill calls for at least 100 square inches of tape on the buggies. Bell’s bill calls for 200 square inches.
`”I think my bill — from the side view, the front view, any view — is much safer than anything they have now,” Winters said.