WATERTOWN, N.Y. – Eleven Old Order Amish families filed a religious discrimination lawsuit in federal court Tuesday, claiming a northern New York community is targeting them for building code enforcement.
The Amish families claim the town of Morristown has refused to issue building permits that would allow them to practice their religion and build homes according to their beliefs.
The Amish said if they cannot build their homes and farms in their traditional ways, they will be forced to sell their homes and property and leave.
"The Amish, who were chased out of Europe hundreds of years ago by government harassment and persecution, are being singled out by petty officials apparently bent on chasing the Amish out of New York," said Eric Rassbach, national litigation director at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C.-based legal organization that joined in the lawsuit.
"The U.S. Constitution, and legal precedent all the way to the Supreme Court, are clear. The Amish, who are known throughout the world as master craftsmen and master builders, have the right to practice their beliefs. That includes building and living in homes that conform to those beliefs," Rassbach said.
Also joining in the lawsuit is Proskauer Rose LLP, a New York City law firm that provides legal assistance to Amish families.
Town Clerk David Murray said town officials had not yet been served with the lawsuit. Town Attorney Andrew Silver was not immediately available for comment, his office said.
In the past, town officials have said they were asking the Amish to comply with the same building codes that apply to other residents.
Building codes are established by the state and enforced by towns, villages and cities. Morristown officials said they updated their 22-year-old building codes in 2006 based on a model law provided by the state. The code requires new and existing structures "to keep pace with advances in technology in fire protection and building construction."
The Amish are members of the Old Order Swartzentruber sect, among the most traditional of the Amish groups. They don't deny building houses without permits and have said they were willing to purchase building permits, but contend the requirements of the codes — such as having smoke detectors, submitting engineering plans and allowing inspections — violate their religious beliefs.
Before 2006, the Swartzentruber Amish in Morristown were granted building permits and allowed to build their structures according to traditional standards and customs without interference, according to the 37-page lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Watertown.
However, since 2006, Morristown officials have brought more than 10 separate prosecutions against the Amish, the lawsuit said.
The 17-count complaint alleged that Morristown code enforcement officer Lanetta Kay Davis, who was appointed in 2006, has selectively issued a number of code violations to the Amish. The complaint also alleged that she has posted messages at an anti-Amish Web site and zealously enforced the code, even issuing tickets on off-hours after making unannounced visits to Amish homes to conduct intrusive inspections.
In addition to Davis, the lawsuit named the town's supervisors and councilors as defendants.
The Amish decided to file a federal lawsuit after Morristown Town Judge James Phillips ruled in July that their religion gave them no special standing to avoid compliance with local building codes.
"The Amish desire `not to conform to this world' must be reasonably and rationally tempered with required compliance to regulations imposed by a town and society in which they are citizens," he wrote in a 10-page decision.
The judge ruled the building code law "was put in place for the safety of all in mind and without discrimination."
However, the lawsuit noted that there have been no building collapses, fires, or other public emergencies that would provide the town with a compelling interest to enforce the building code on the Amish.
The sect has had zoning disputes with local authorities elsewhere in New York, as well as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.