Amish take a stand against marking buggies

Jacob Gingerich, member of a conservative Amish community, has been cited and jailed for refusing to place an orange safety triangle on the back of his buggy, parked here on his farm near Mayfield.
Jacob Gingerich, member of a conservative Amish community, has been cited and jailed for refusing to place an orange safety triangle on the back of his buggy, parked here on his farm near Mayfield. AP

MAYFIELD — On Jacob Gingerich's farm in Western Kentucky, there is no phone or electricity for his family of 14. He even sees putting an orange safety triangle on their horse-drawn buggy as a violation of the simple and pious life his faith requires.

He and other Amish men in rural Graves County have become scofflaws for not using the reflective signs, ignoring state law, disobeying orders from a judge and even going to jail for not paying fines.

To Gingerich and others in the conservative Amish community known as Swartzentruber, using the bright reflective symbol amounts to blasphemy.

"We try to lead a simple, plain life," said Gingerich. "Putting that orange triangle on the back of our buggy would not leave our buggies plain anymore."

He and seven other Amish men were sent to jail in September for refusing to pay fines. A ninth Amish man avoided jail time when a local resident paid his fine. And on Thursday, Gingerich again went to jail, along with nine other Amish men.

At least two other Kentucky counties, Grayson and Logan, have summoned men into court recently for driving unmarked buggies.

On Friday, an attorney with the Kentucky American Civil Liberties Union filed a brief asking the Kentucky Supreme Court to rule that the reflective-sign law limits the religious freedom of the Amish. The court agreed to hear the case but has not set a date.

A group of Swartzentruber Amish who recently met with an Associated Press reporter fear they would be treated as outcasts by other Swartzentruber communities if they used the safety triangles. Many Amish use the triangles, but Swartzentruber is a breakaway order that follows stricter rules on modesty, humility and behavior than other Amish.

"If we go ahead and put it on, the other groups of the Amish in other states, they would shun us," said Joe Stutzman, who has been jailed.

The issue over triangles has come up in other states. Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania have allowed exemptions from the orange triangles, and courts in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan have sided with the religious freedom argument.

But Kentucky authorities say using the orange triangle is still the law.

"We feel that the reflective triangle is the best way, wat least right now, to be able to see those slow-moving objects on the road," said Dean Patterson, a spokesman for the Kentucky State Police.

Collisions of motor vehicles with Amish buggies are often fatal.

In November, a teenager using a harness-type horse carriage was killed in Central Kentucky when he was struck from behind by an SUV. The buggy did not have a reflective triangle.

Several other fatal collisions with Amish buggies happened in the United States last year, though it's not clear in each case whether reflective triangles were used.

The Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled in June that the Amish would not be excused because the law "serves as a condition to utilizing a certain privilege: the use of state roads."

Gingerich said Swartzentrubers, just as they have for decades, would continue to refuse to hang the triangles or pay fines.

Recorded violations of the law are rare in Kentucky, according to data obtained by the AP. Of 89 violations during the past five years statewide, 57 were in Graves County, according to data compiled by the state Administrative Office of the Courts.

The jailings in September outraged some Kentuckians, even outside of Graves County.

Michael Meeks, a Louisville business owner who spent time on a Quaker farm as a youth, paid Gingerich's outstanding fines in September, freeing him from jail a couple of days early.

"They're not breaking the law in my mind," said John Via, of Mayfield, a former state transportation worker who also paid an Amish man's court fine in September.

Kentucky lawmakers could solve the impasse. Some legislators have proposed changing the law to allow buggies to use gray reflective tape instead of the orange signs.

"I think the Amish are in the right, it's that simple," said Rep. Johnny Bell, a Democrat from south-central Kentucky who plans to file legislation next month. "I think they should be allowed the lifestyle that they choose, as well as the rest of us."