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Supreme Court overturns Fillmore County gray water decision

The nation's highest court ordered Friday, July 2, 2021, that the state court's ruling be vacated and the case be sent back to the Minnesota Court of Appeals for further consideration.

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WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Friday that a decision from Minnesota Court of Appeals in the case of four members of the Fillmore County Amish community must be vacated and reconsidered.

"In this country, neither the Amish nor anyone else should have to choose between their farms and their faith," U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the decision.

Ammon Swartzentruber, Menno Mast, Amos Mast and Sam Miller 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.

RELATED: State responds to U.S. Supreme Court petition in Amish gray water case

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.

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The Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the lower court ruling, and the Minnesota Supreme Court declined to hear the men's appeal under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. On Friday, the nation's highest court handed down its ruling telling the Minnesota court to reconsider its decision as Fillmore County and the state courts "misapprehended RLUIPA's demands."

The attorney representing the four men said in a statement that they were "extremely happy" with the ruling.

"I have not yet been able to share the news with my clients. Because they are Amish I cannot call or email them, but I think they will be incredibly happy when they get my letter and the decision in the mail," attorney Brian Lipford wrote in an email. "Given the extremely small number of cases that the Supreme Court acts upon, it is humbling ,the fact that they decided to intervene into this case and grant the relief we were seeking."

Gorsuch wrote in the ruling that most notably, the county and courts erred by treating Fillmore County's general interested in sanitation regulations as "compelling" without specific application of those rules to the Amish community. The Supreme Court Justice also wrote that the parties erred by failing to give "due weight to exemption other groups enjoy" on the topic of hand carried gray water -- specifically as campers, hunters, fisherman and owners and renters of rustic cabins are exempt from the septic system mandate.

The high court also considered a gray water mulch basin system the Amish proposed as an alternative water filtration system, which is allowed in other states

Gorsuch wrote in the ruling that RLUIPA prohibits governments from infringing sincerely held religious beliefs and practices except as a last resort.

"Despite that clear command, this dispute has staggered on in various forms for over six years," Gorsuch wrote. "County officials have subjected the Amish to threats of reprisals and inspections of their homes and farms. They have attacked the sincerity of the Amish's faith. And they have displayed precisely the sort of bureaucratic inflexibility RLUIPA was designed to prevent. Now that this Court has vacated the decision below, I hope the lower courts and local authorities will take advantage of this 'opportunity for further consideration' ... and bring this matter to a swift conclusion."

Fillmore County and the MPCA contend that the geology of the region makes gray water a risk to groundwater.

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"Fillmore County and much of southeastern Minnesota have a porous landscape vulnerable to pollution that impacts our drinking water and streams," Andrea Cournoyer, deputy communications director for the MPCA, said after the court's ruling on Friday. "The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Fillmore County have worked with the Amish community to identify workable solutions to this critical wastewater issue and will continue to do so."

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Emily Cutts is the Post Bulletin's public safety reporter. She joined the Post Bulletin in July 2018 after stints in Vermont and Western Massachusetts.
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