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Judges side with Mennonites in steel wheel case

DES MOINES - In a unanimous opinion filed Friday, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that Mitchell County's road protection ordinance violates the Constitutional rights of Old Order Groffdale Conference Mennonites.

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Daniel Zimmerman of Orchard stands by his tractor which has steel wheels. Zimmerman is a member of the Old Order Groffdale Conference Mennonite Church which forbids its members from driving tractors unless they have steel wheels.
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DES MOINES - In a unanimous opinion filed Friday, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that Mitchell County's road protection ordinance violates the Constitutional rights of Old Order Groffdale Conference Mennonites.

The Mennonites are forbidden from driving tractors unless they have steel wheels. Mitchell County's road protection ordinance forbids driving steel wheel vehicles on hard surface roads.

"We conclude the ordinance as applied to church members violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution," wrote Justice Edward Mansfield for the court. "We find the ordinance is not of general applicability because it contains exemptions that are inconsistent with its stated purpose of protecting Mitchell County roads. We also find the ordinance does not survive strict scrutiny because it is not the least restrictive means of serving what is claimed to be a compelling governmental interest in road protection."

Matthew Zimmerman, who lives on an Orchard farm with his parents, was cited in 2010 for operating a tractor with steel wheels in violation of the ordinance.

Zimmerman, who is an Old Order Groffdale Conference Mennonite, moved to dismiss the citation because it violated his Constitutional rights. He was found guilty at a hearing. He appealed, and the district court upheld the decision.

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Eli Zimmerman, a fellow member of the church, explained at the hearing that the use of steel wheels is a church rule. Breaking the rule could result in being barred from the church. He said Mennonites use hard surface roads mainly to haul their produce to market or to get to farm fields.

"Both parties conceded that for some time the Mennonites and the county had peacefully coexisted, and the county did not object to the Mennonites' use of steel wheels," Mansfield wrote.

However, in 2009 the county started a $9 million road resurfacing project, where existing roads were 'white-topped' or covered with concrete, a method new to the county. County officials testified that steel wheels damaged the white-topped roads, and in 2009 the road protection ordinance outlawing steel wheels was adopted.

The Supreme Court found the ordinance to be facially neutral and not intentionally discriminating against religious practice, but when it came to the question of general applicability, Mansfield pointed out that the county didn't regulate other sources of road damage.

"It chose to prohibit only a particular source of harm to the roads that had a religious origin," Mansfield wrote.

Failing the applicability test, the county had to show that the ordinance served a compelling state interest and was the least restrictive means of attaining it.

While the county had a compelling interest to protect roads, the justices "are not persuaded that the ordinance is narrowly tailored to achieve the stated objective of road preservation," Mansfield wrote.

"Given the lack of evidence of the degree to which the steel lugs harm the county's roads, the undisputed fact that other events cause road damage and the undisputed fact that the county had tolerated lugs for many years ... it is difficult to see that an outright ban ... is necessary," Mansfield wrote.

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The court asked why "a more narrowly-tailored alternative" was not considered such as Howard County's agreement where Mennonites established a trust to cover possible damage.

"The question here is whether the county's goal of road preservation can be accomplished less restrictively," Mansfield wrote. "We believe it can be."

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