The amish vs. the feds

Posted: Dec 07, 2000 12:00 AM
Everything I learned about the Amish, I learned from the old Harrison Ford movie, "Witness." Members of this pacifist religious community don't use electricity or listen to music. The women wear bonnets. The men drive black buggies. Thanks to principled elders, self-employed Amish people don't pay Social Security taxes. And in a campaign for economic and cultural survival, they've petitioned Congress for an exemption from outdated child labor laws. Whoops. Hollywood left out those last two facts, but they are perhaps the two most important things Americans should know about the Amish people. The group's quiet battles with the federal government contain more inspirational drama than any screenwriter could conceive. Brad Igou, a historian who studied the community and publishes the "Amish Country News" in Lancaster, Pa., recounts on his Web site the little-known story of how the Amish won a landmark exemption from payroll taxes. Soon after the government established the Social Security program, Amish farmers refused to pay into the so-called insurance scheme. For the Amish, Igou explains, "the care of the elderly is seen as the responsibility of the family and community, not the government. Whether it be additions built onto the main house where grandparents retire, benefit sales to pay large medical bills, or the community effort of a barn-raising, the Amish truly try to take care of their own." When Amish farmers in Ohio refused to pay the taxes voluntarily in 1956, the Internal Revenue System placed liens on bank accounts they maintained to cover the tax. This passive payment plan, however, was still in violation of many farmers' core religious values. "But if any provide not for his own, and especially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith," said the Amish elders, citing a Biblical passage from the book of Timothy. When farmer Valentine Byler refused to pay $308.96 in back taxes, federal bureaucrats took him to court. Igou writes that a U.S. district judge angrily dismissed the case and chastised the IRS for having nothing "better to do than to take a peaceful man off his farm and drag him into court." In retaliation, the IRS raided Byler's fields and seized three of his horses. This police-state action caused a national uproar. The New York Herald Tribune editorialized: "What kind of 'welfare' is it that takes a farmer's horses away at spring plowing time in order to dragoon a whole community into a 'benefit' scheme it neither needs nor wants, and which offends its deeply held religious scruples?" Byler's case led to an amendment to the 1965 Medicare bill exempting the Old Order Amish -- and any other religious objectors who opposed government insurance schemes -- from paying self-employment taxes for government old-age benefits. Now, if only Congress would allow the rest of us self-employed folks who subscribe to the doctrine of self-reliance to opt out of the system. Thirty-five years later, the Amish are still struggling to preserve their values and protect their freedom. The U.S. Department of Labor recently launched a crackdown on Amish craftsmen who employ their children in the family trades. Responding to complaints from non-Amish competitors, the Labor Department conducted enforcement sweeps in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. One Amish man who owns a leather shop was reportedly fined $8,000 simply because his 13-year-old daughter worked a store cash register. Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), who met with the Amish community last week, points out that existing child labor law "even prevents Amish parents from allowing their teen-age children to sweep sawdust or stack wood on premises where woodworking tools are used." Pitts has guided legislation to change the overzealous rules twice through the House, but the Senate refuses to pass a version of the bill out of committee. Regulators say that children must be protected from "safety hazards." But the real danger to the Amish -- and to all Americans -- is continued encroachment by Big Government on the fundamental freedom to practice their faith, make a living, and raise their families in peace.