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Amish families carry clout in Kentucky politics

Graves County Deputy Zach Dunigan stood with Jacob Gingerich, center, and Ben Gingerich, who were arrested in January for not using orange reflectors. Jacob Gingerich helped to change the law.
Graves County Deputy Zach Dunigan stood with Jacob Gingerich, center, and Ben Gingerich, who were arrested in January for not using orange reflectors. Jacob Gingerich helped to change the law. ASSOCIATED PRESS

FRANKFORT — With his broad-brimmed straw hat and long beard, Jacob Gingerich drew strange looks as he walked the marble corridors of the state Capitol alongside powerful men in shiny shoes and expensive suits.

The Amish man and several of his neighbors were on a mission to change a longstanding state law that they felt compelled to disobey because it violated their religious beliefs. These old-fashioned Christians spent time in jail for what many people might have considered a trivial issue — whether the state should force them to attach orange safety emblems to the backs of their horse-drawn buggies.

"Our church forbids the bright, loud and gaudy colors," Gingerich said. "Therefore, we cannot in good conscience use the slow-moving-vehicle emblem."

For Gingerich and his Amish neighbors — several of whom served jail time rather than use the emblems — it worth fighting for. And they won.

They watched last week as Gov. Steve Beshear signed a bill into law that allows them to use reflective silver or white tape on their buggies rather than the traditional fluorescent signs that make the slower-moving buggies more visible to approaching motorists.

"I think we were able to fashion a solution that helped folks with their religious issues but at the same time still maintained the standard of safety that we have to have on our highways," Beshear told reporters.

Rep. Tim Moore, R-Elizabethtown, said the Amish victory should be encouraging to others who might need the legislature's help on an issue.

"I think it affirms that any group of people, if they are willing to become involved, can effect change," Moore said. "Obviously, the Amish don't want to be involved with the goings-on of politics, but they felt very strongly and so they got engaged."

Gingerich, a Mayfield-area farmer, was credited with helping the Amish cause by sending personal, handwritten letters to Kentucky lawmakers. One senator heralded Gingerich's letter as "quite possibly the best example I've ever seen of citizen advocacy."

Moore said he, like the majority of state lawmakers, thought granting the Amish an exemption from the traffic-safety law was the right thing to do.

Beshear and lawmakers were left to weigh religious rights against traffic safety in implementing the law, which carried an emergency clause that made it go into effect immediately.

Not all lawmakers favored the law. A handful feared that exempting the Amish from using the orange emblems may make it more difficult for motorists to spot the buggies on Kentucky highways.

Rep. Fred Nesler, D-Mayfield, said that the reflective tape would work well at night by reflecting car headlights, but it will do nothing to make the buggies visible during daylight hours.

In Amish communities nationwide, fatal collisions between automobiles and buggies aren't uncommon. The most recent one in Kentucky involved an SUV that crashed into the back of a buggy in Cub Run last November, killing the 18-year-old Amish driver, according to authorities. Several months earlier, officials reported, a tractor-trailer ran into the back of buggy near Hopkinsville, killing an Amish child and injuring three others.

Sen. Ken Winters, R-Murray, said the Amish already have been doing what the legislation requires by voluntarily outlining the backs and sides of their buggies in the reflective tape, and putting the tape on the front left corners of the buggies. They've also already adopted a provision of the bill that sets parameters for lanterns used on the buggies, requiring the one on the left side to be a foot taller than the one on the right.

That wasn't their only victory in this year's legislative session. Lawmakers also killed a measure that would have barred the Amish from driving steel-wheeled tractors and farm implements on highways unless they have a strip of rubber to keep the metal from digging into the blacktop.

The Amish, riding a wave of goodwill among Kentucky lawmakers, had little reason to worry that the measure would pass. Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Ernie Harris, R-Crestwood, didn't even call it up for a vote.