A judge who dealt jail sentences to Amish men who refused to pay traffic fines in a dispute over the use of reflective safety triangles on their buggies handed down an unnecessary punishment, a lawyer for the men says, noting the Kentucky Supreme Court will hear their appeal.
District Judge Deborah Crooks in western Kentucky’s Graves County could have delayed the cases while the high court prepares to hear their religious freedom appeal, attorney Bill Sharp said. Crooks issued sentences of three to 13 days in jail for nine of the Amish men last week.
The men belong to a nationwide conservative sect called Swartzentruber that rejects on religious grounds the use of brightly colored triangles on their horse-drawn buggies. Kentucky requires the use of the triangles on slow-moving vehicles, but state lawmakers are considering an exception for the Amish.
They reject the manmade traffic symbols, among other reasons, because of their belief that even their safety on the roads is directed by God.
“The necessity of incarcerating them while the Kentucky Supreme Court has decided to hear these cases … to us at least, is unnecessary,” said Sharp, an attorney with the Kentucky chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Sharp said it was unfair for the men to be jailed when the law could be changed or found unconstitutional. “If they go to jail and sit in jail for however many days, they don’t get those days back,” the Louisville attorney added.
Crooks, who was first elected district judge in the county in 2002, postponed the cases for years while waiting for the state Court of Appeals to rule on the Amish mens’ appeal.
In June the appeals court sided with the state, rejecting the Amish religious freedom argument. The Amish then appealed to the state Supreme Court but Crooks ordered the men into court to pay their accrued fines, which they refused to do. The biggest individual fine was more than $600.
Crooks has declined comment on the Amish cases after repeated requests from The Associated Press.
The Amish men sent to jail last week had been convicted of breaking the slow-moving vehicle law during short trials in Crooks’ court.
Three of them — Ananias Byler, Jacob Gingerich and Menno Zook — remained in jail as of last Thursday. Crooks also jailed some of the same Amish men in September for not paying the fines.
In court last week, Crooks told Byler that she understands the religious objection but “it’s not up to me to change the law.”
Other local judges in Kentucky have agreed to postpone Amish traffic cases in their court or have dismissed the citations.
Earlier, Logan County District Judge Sue Carol Browning postponed the trials of five Amish men who were cited by police for not using triangles. Browning ruled after County Attorney Joe Ross entered a motion that said “in the interest of acting in good faith,” the trials should be postponed since state lawmakers have filed bills to amend the law.
And in one of the first such court cases in Kentucky, Barren County District Judge Ben Dickinson in 1985 dismissed a citation against Herman Zook for not using the triangle. Dickinson said at the time the man had religious freedom rights under the First Amendment.
“I just thought that they’re good honest citizens that we ought to make an exception for,” Dickinson said this week. “I didn’t see any need to put anybody in jail.”
The Swartzentruber Amish believe that their safety, even on the roadways, is directed by God, which is why they reject the manmade traffic symbols, said Donald Kraybill, a prominent expert on the Amish and a professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. He said the Amish here are aware that other states, such as Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio, have made exceptions to the slow-moving vehicle law.
“They don’t understand why Kentucky is so intransient, why it’s so insistent and cantankerous,” Kraybill said. He said about five percent of the nation’s 1,900 Amish church districts are Swartzentruber.
He said the Swartzentruber community would rather leave Kentucky than budge on their religious convictions.
“Frankly, in the end if there’s not a legislative way to get out of it, the Swartzentrubers, they’ll pack their bags and load their buggies and leave,” Kraybill said.
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