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Kentucky Supreme Court hears Amish buggy sign case

A group of Amish men who have spent time in jail for refusing to use a reflective symbol on their horse-drawn buggies asked the Kentucky Supreme Court on Thursday to grant them a religious exemption from using the orange triangles.

More than a dozen Amish men from western Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee dressed in dark pants, vests and wide-brimmed hats attended the hearing before the state's highest court to hear attorneys argue the religious freedom issue.

The western Kentucky Amish men from a conservative group known as Swartzentruber will not use the slow-moving vehicle sign because they say the color is gaudy and they depend on God, and not manmade symbols, for their safety.

Justices on the high court questioned attorneys on whether highway safety should be compromised over a group's religious beliefs, but also wondered if the triangles are superior to other methods of marking the black buggies, like the reflective tape.

"Do we have any real evidence that this triangle that the law imposes on the Swartzentruber family branch indeed does what it says what it's supposed to do?" Justice Mary C. Noble asked Assistant Attorney General Christian Miller.

Miller said the sign draws attention to the buggy and can give a motorist a split-second warning that can mean the difference between "a 35 mile-per-hour collision ... and a 15 mile-per-hour collision."

"There is something that needs to be on the back of those buggies to draw people's attention," Miller said.
American Civil Liberties Union attorney Bill Sharp, an attorney for the Amish, said the law does not require bicycle or horseback riders to use the triangles "yet a six-foot-tall carriage that's roughly the size of a compact car does have to have one."

If Kentucky's high court doesn't help them, state lawmakers could change the law to protect the Amish mens' religious beliefs. The Kentucky House may soon vote on a bill that would allow the Amish to use reflective tape instead of the triangles.

One of the Amish defendants, 40-year-old Jacob Gingerich of Mayfield, has spent 16 days in jail for refusing to pay fines for violating the slow moving vehicle law. Gingerich said Thursday after the hearing that he hoped Kentucky's high court was more receptive to their argument than the state appeals court, which ruled last year that the Amish were not entitled to an exemption for religious reasons.

Gingerich and the other men have racked up several violations of the law dating back to 2007, when Gingerich was stopped by a state trooper in Mayfield and given a citation for not displaying the orange triangle.

"I was out selling sweet corn and was on my way home," Gingerich recalled.

In January, a district judge in Graves County jailed Gingerich and eight other Amish men for three to 13 days for continuing to refuse to pay fines for the violations. Gingerich's fines exceeded $600. A group of Amish men was also jailed in that county in September.