Amish, Michigan health officials spar over sewage disposal

By Pamela Manson
Amish residents counter in a lawsuit they are not harming anyone with their traditional way of living. File Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI
Amish residents counter in a lawsuit they are not harming anyone with their traditional way of living. File Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

Dec. 24 (UPI) -- Amish residents in Michigan are suing the Lenawee County Health Department for violating their religious liberty rights by seeking to have their homes demolished if they don't modernize water and sewage systems.

County Administrator Martin Marshall said officials are protecting public health by ensuring property owners comply with the environmental health code, which has requirements on how human waste can be disposed.


The residents counter that they're not harming anyone with their traditional way of living.

The Amish do not use electricity, hydraulic power or running water because of religious observances that reject modern technology in favor of simple living. Instead, the families hand-pump water and use outhouses.

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In separate suits filed last month in 39th Circuit Court, the county said it's condemned structures at 14 Amish properties as unfit for human habitation because sewage disposal and water supply systems are inadequate. The unsanitary conditions are injuring neighboring properties, the suits say, and "injury to persons, particularly children, is highly probable and imminent unless this nuisance is immediately abated by removal of the buildings."


The county is asking for court orders requiring the property owners to either correct violations of the health code or demolish the buildings.

Last week, attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan (ACLU) and Dayton, Ohio-based law firm Wright & Schulte countersued Lenawee County on behalf of the families, on referral from the Fair Housing Center of Southeast & Mid Michigan.

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The countersuits say the health department's actions violate constitutional guarantees of the right to religion and cite violations of provisions in the federal Fair Housing Act.

"The Constitution allows everyone to practice religion as they see fit as long as they're not harming anyone," Phil Mayor, senior staff attorney of the ACLU of Michigan, said. "If the county gets its way, it'll be the expulsion of an entire religious community within its borders."

Mayor also said he's not aware of any health problems caused by sewage disposal. The counterclaims say the method used to provide water to homes and dispose of black and gray wastewater does not present a health or safety threat.

The county said in a statement Monday it's willing to work with property owners and emphasized it has never demolished a home for non-compliance with the health code. In addition, there are ways to comply with the code without installing electricity, it said.


"There are safe options for outhouses that have been presented to the families and that the county itself has implemented for facilities in county parks," the county said.

The health department first received complaints in 2015 from county residents about the unsanitary disposal of sewage at Medina Township properties. The county said it has educated property owners on health code requirements and discussed options for compliance.

None of the property owners has agreed to a compromise, county officials said, and additional homes have been constructed in the area in the past four years.

"We've let those property owners know that they have options available to them that do not impact their beliefs," Marshall said. "Even now we're willing to work with them to meet the objectives of the environmental health code."

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