The Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld a ruling Monday that would require four Fillmore County Amish families to install subsurface sewage treatment systems despite religious objections.
Ammon Swartzentruber, Menno Mast, Amos Mast and Sam Miller filed suit in April 2017 against the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Fillmore County over concerns that the agency and county were requiring them to install a wastewater system for gray water.
Judge Joseph Chase ruled in April 2019 that the men were not exempt from county and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency requirements that rural residences have subsurface sewage systems for disposing of residential wastewater. Chase found that the four men had sincerely held religious beliefs, and the government’s regulation to install a septic system was burdensome on the exercise of those beliefs.
Following that ruling, the men filed a motion asking Chase to amend his ruling or grant them a new trial in the yearslong struggle over residential wastewater disposal regulations. That motion was denied, and the case was appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
In the appeal to the high court, the men argued that the district court erred by denying their claims that mandating the installation of the septic systems violated their freedom of conscience under the Minnesota Constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
While the district court ruled that installing the septic systems would be burdensome on the exercise of their religious beliefs, the government has a compelling interest in protecting human health and the environment, and there was no less-restrictive means.
The men had proposed an alternative mulch basin system, but a witness for the MPCA and Fillmore County testified during the 2018 trial that the mulch basin system had a number of problems. It was the MPCA’s and county’s burden to prove that a mulch basin would not accomplish the government’s compelling public health and environmental safety purposes.
The appeals court ruled that the district court appropriately concluded that the MPCA and Fillmore County met its burden of demonstrating that the mulch basin did not provide a less-restrictive means of accomplishing the government’s compelling interests of protecting public health and the environment.
Brian Lipford, the attorney for the four men, said he was disappointed by the decision and it would likely be appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
"The Court of Appeals decision made it clear that all households in Fillmore County are required to comply with the Fillmore County subsurface treatment system requirements by installing proper septic systems," Fillmore County Attorney Brett Corson wrote in a statement.
The contention can be traced to March 2006, when the Fillmore County Zoning Office performed a compliance inspection on the homes as part of a countywide "Imminent Public Health Threat Inventory."
The issue was brought back to the forefront in 2013, when Minnesota passed a law requiring counties to create and enact local ordinances that comply with changes to the MPCA’s sewage treatment system within two years.
The Fillmore County ordinance provided "alternative local standards" for their Amish community. Amish households are required to have a 1,000-gallon tank regardless of bedroom size.
Amish homeowners refused to make the mandated changes, and the case was referred to the MPCA in August 2015.
In November 2017, the MPCA sent an administrative penalty order that ordered the Amish to make the necessary updates or appeal within 30 days. Members of the community again declined to make the changes and did not appeal within 30 days. A $1,000 fine was imposed in February 2016.
The lawsuit was originally filed in Ramsey County, but was later moved to Fillmore County, and culminated in a weeklong trial spread out through November and December 2018.