Sludged: Amish fight agency order to install septic systems

MOUNT PLEASANT, Michigan (AP)– The Albemarle-based Rutherford Institute has an oozy case on its hands. A health agency is seeking to force six Amish families to install septic systems, something they say violates their religious beliefs.

The regional Central Michigan District Health Department in Mount Pleasant wants to bring the families' properties in line with health codes.

"We have a sanitary code," department health officer Mary Kushion said last week. "Everybody is a Michigan resident... and needs to abide by the septic code."

"We can't treat different segments of the population differently. We can't discriminate,'" she said. The department provides health services and enforces health codes in Arenac, Clare, Gladwin, Isabella, Osceola, and Roscommon counties.

Grand Rapids attorney Howard Van Den Heuvel, who represents the Gladwin County families, said only a small amount of water drains from each home's kitchen sink and wash house. It drains onto a tile in the yard, then seeps into the ground, he said.

Septic systems can involve electrical motors, and the Amish avoid use of electricity.

"The issue has become preserving their lifestyle," Van Den Heuvel told the Detroit Free Press. "That's really a precious thing."

The Amish families caught the attention of the Rutherford Institute, a private group that promotes religious rights, which filed a petition asking Gladwin County Circuit Court to intervene on behalf of the farmers.

Van Den Heuvel said the water that enters the ground– which the health department wants collected in 1,300-gallon septic tanks– is safe.

"They use organic soap that they make themselves," he said. "This is not a source of pollution. In places like Arizona, where it's really dry, they use this kind of water on their gardens."

The Amish, who call themselves the Plain People, generally shun modern conveniences such as electrical service, telephones, cars, indoor bathrooms and septic systems.

Between 10,000 and 20,000 Amish people live in Michigan, according to the Rutherford Institute.

The case involves Amish members Amos Beechy, Alvin Slabaugh, Daniel and John Mast, Amos Weaver and others.

"It's a classic freedom of religion case," said Rutherford President John Whitehead. "They're living the same way they lived in 1525. They believe it's an affront to their religion to modernize."

The Amish families hired a hydrogeologist to look for alternatives. The scientist recommended that they install 300-pound tanks that they could build themselves. The smaller tanks would not require electric pumps as the larger tanks might, Van Den Heuvel said.

But the health authorities still want to see the larger tanks installed.

Whitehead said the case will be bolstered by a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision. In Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Court ruled that Wisconsin had no right to force Amish children to attend school beyond the eighth grade because that would have conflicted with Amish beliefs.