Members of the Fillmore County Swartzentruber Amish community have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their case on whether the government can force them to install a septic system for the disposal of bath, laundry and dish water on their rural Fillmore County farms when it conflicts with their religious beliefs.
In a petition filed on Jan. 20, 2021, by attorney Brian Lipford, Ammon Swartzentruber, Menno Mast, Amos Mast and Sam Miller ask the high court to consider two questions under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act: Does the government have a compelling interest in regulating the disposal of "gray water," which includes laundry, bath and dishwater; and, is a septic system the least restrictive method when 20 states allow mulch basin systems?
“This rejection of modern technology is critical to their way of life; if they are forced to choose between their beliefs and the farms that provide their livelihood, they will choose their beliefs," the petition states. "That is the choice the government is forcing upon them.”
The men filed a civil 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 that went against their religious beliefs.
The Fillmore County District Court ruled that while the men had sincerely held religious beliefs and that the installation of such a system was a burden on their beliefs, the Amish men were not exempt from installing the system.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the lower court ruling, and he Minnesota Supreme Court declined to hear the men's appeal. The men then asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their case.
The nation’s highest court accepts only 100 to 150 of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review each year. The U.S. Supreme Court is not under any obligation to hear the Swartenztruber case. The court usually hears cases that “could have national significance, might harmonize conflicting decisions in the federal circuit courts, and/or could have precedential value,” according to Supreme Court Procedures.
A response from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Fillmore County is due by March 5. The four Amish men, through their attorney, will be able to respond to the state's filing before it goes to conference before the nine Supreme Court Justices. Four of the nine justices would have to vote to hear the case for it to proceed to the so-called merit stage.
"The government does not need to force the Swartzentruber Amish to choose between their faith and their farms," the petition reads. "Strict scrutiny analysis requires that if a less restrictive means exists, the government must allow it. In this case, there is an alternative that satisfies the government’s health and safety goals and does not violate the Swartzentruber Amish’s sincerely held religious beliefs."
MPCA requirements led to civil lawsuit
The four Amish men 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.
Following that ruling, the men filed a motion asking Chase to amend his ruling or grant them a new trial. That motion was denied, and the men appealed the ruling to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which upheld the lower court’s ruling in June 2020. The Minnesota Supreme Court denied review on Aug. 25, 2020.
The conflict can be traced to March 2006, when the Fillmore County Zoning Office performed a compliance inspection on the Amish men's 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 the Amish community. Amish households are required to have a 1,000-gallon tank regardless of bedroom numbers.
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.