Harmony, Minn. — GIDEON HERSHBERGER is one ex-inmate the Fillmore County jail would welcome back anytime. Locked up for a week for not paying a traffic fine with inmates serving time for drug dealing and manslaughter, he read the Bible and ``Uncle Tom's Cabin'' while building a workbench for the jail.
How this bearded Old Order Amishman landed on the wrong side of the law is a chapter out of changing American rural life, and a potential landmark in church-state relations.
As growing Amish communities spread through about 22 states, seeking seclusion and reviving small family farms, they are experiencing new tensions with ``the English,'' as they call outsiders.
Mr. Hershberger objects to a state law requiring the use of bright triangular safety signs on the back of his plain black horse-drawn buggy.
``In our tradition we have never allowed colored signs; from way back we try to keep from worldly things,'' explains Dennis Miller, an Amish farmer speaking for those who object to the law.
Court cases coming up here, as well as cases in Michigan, involve balancing safety on public roads with religious freedom.
But the deeper issue is whether an increasingly high-speed society can yield to those who don't conform to its growing rules.
To be separate from the world, most Old Order Amish use horse-drawn transit, engage in farm-centered work, dress plainly with distinctive headgear, and shun higher education and electric power.
Recent challenges to their way of life have included a proposed expressway through their lands in Pennsylvania (now on hold), power-line construction in Ohio (now rerouted), prohibitions on new outhouses in Maryland (now lifted), and restrictions on beards of Ohio volunteer firefighters.
``It's not going to get any easier, because the United States is getting more modern and congested,'' says Joe Wittmer, a University of Florida professor who was raised in an Amish family. ``It's very difficult not to be a modern man in America today.''
The Amish see the struggle as akin to that of their forefathers who braved the torture and flames of open religious persecution in 16th-century Europe. Their problems with the law are sometimes linked to bad feelings against them as a group, which occasionally erupt into attacks on buggies.
``People from a distance often like the Amish a lot, but up close they are sometimes resented because they are so frugal and self-sufficient and often don't plow the proceeds back into the community,'' says the Rev. Martin Marty, a University of Chicago religious historian.
More people are getting the chance to view the religion ``up close'' as its communities spread and in the long run gain at least grudging respect.
Nearly 100,000 Old Order Amish are estimated to be living in the US and Canada today, compared with about 3,700 in 1890, says sociologist John Hostetler, author of ``Amish Society.'' The increase is attributed to families that average seven children.
A pilgrim people
Although new generations of Old Order Amish have adopted some new technology, they still eschew most modern conveniences and inventions.
Often the more conservative groups head out for cheaper farmland, founding new settlements in states like Minnesota, Michigan, and upstate New York, away from traditional Amish areas.
They are a pilgrim people who often revive marginal farms, live less prosperously than their Lancaster County, Pa., brethren, and move on if an area is not hospitable.
It's estimated that only 45 of about 750 Old Order Amish congregations object to the orange signs, says Stephen Scott, author of ``Plain Buggies.''
While that objection may seem silly to outsiders, the Rev. William Lindholm says it's an essential tenet of belief.
To people with no church buildings, ``their buggy and their whole way of life is a religious way of living, which is an austere one,'' says Mr. Lindholm, a Lutheran pastor and founder of the National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom.
``If you enter that environment and hang a bright orange symbol on it, that says the government is encroaching on their faith, similar to in Bible times when the Romans tried to hang state symbols in the holy streets of Jerusalem,'' he adds. Some see the use of the emblems as trusting in a human, government-imposed symbol rather than in God.
Even among Fillmore County's Amish, who first came to the area from Ohio in 1974 looking for land away from ``liberal'' Mennonite neighbors (who used tractors and drove cars with black-painted bumpers), the vehicle signs cause dissension.
The Amish here have split into ``orange sign,'' ``no sign,'' and ``black-and-white sign'' factions, which one elder Amishman here says relate to larger disputes over dealings with the outside world.
On a recent morning, for example, buggies were parked outside a farm near Harmony where one Amishman was auctioning off his possessions in preparation for a move to Michigan.
He was leaving partly because his use of an orange sign had caused tension with his father, a church leader who disapproves of the emblem. Such tensions can loom large in small religious communities that may shun violators for a period of time or until they reform.
On the part of non-Amish neighbors and local officials, ``this becomes the visible symbol of how people think the Amish are able to do things that they themselves can't,'' says Minnesota State Patrol Lt. Col. Glenn Gramse.
Public safety at issue?
The issue in an eight-year-old Michigan court cases hinges on whether the signs are needed for public safety. The Court of Appeals said officials had not proved signs were necessary, as opposed to alternatives acceptable to the Amish such as the use of plain reflective tape. Municipalities involved are trying to appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court.
Philip Villaume, a lawyer who is defending Amishmen in Fillmore County, will argue for dismissal of the cases on constitutional grounds at a hearing in county court that starts today.
Jack Anderson, a traffic engineer, will testify on their behalf that recent research indicates the needs of public safety could be better met by outlining the back of vehicles with white reflective tape.
Officials say standardized slow-moving-vehicle signs are needed to alert drivers to the presence of a slow-moving vehicle ahead. They cite studies in the 1960s, when the emblems were first introduced nationwide, that showed significant reduction in rear-end collisions and fatalities with slow-moving vehicles.
Although Amish buggies can be seriously damaged when hit by high-speed cars and trucks, animal-driven vehicles are statistically a tiny part of the nation's traffic accidents.
Mr. Miller says drunken drivers are a much worse danger than any lack of a sign. In Fillmore County, assistant county prosecutor Matt Opat says the few local cases he has on record of accidents involving buggies don't show that an orange sign would have helped.
Al Pugh, a safety expert formerly with Ohio State University, says problems with the signs aren't confined to the Amish: ``The biggest problem we have is people not knowing what it means.''
Cases in Ohio, Kentucky, New York, and Indiana through formal or informal means resulted in allowing some Amish to use reflective tape and lanterns as alternatives to the orange signs, according to supporters.
Special legal status given
The special legal status of the faith is reminiscent of native American religions, also based in a nonconforming life style. In the landmark 1972 Wisconsin v. Yoder case, the US Supreme Court in effect gave the Amish an exemption from certain state educational laws. Such cases involving the Amish are also cited today on behalf of home schools in urban America.
So the rights of a seemingly quaint group like the Old Order Amish touch on the rights of mainstream Americans as well, the Rev. Mr. Lindholm says.
``It's a biblical question of how you treat strangers in the land, and it's a test of our democracy,'' he says. ``If we say we have freedom of religion and we don't, then these fragile groups that come along are given protection by the courts - selfish interests won't do it.''
Dr. Wittmer adds that ``many times these things never get to court, these things can be worked out.''
Such compromises are likely to increase as part of the growing trend of Amish men going to work in nonfarm occupations.
The Amish also, usually inadvertently, fuel tourist industries that add to pressures on their life styles but often improve their popularity with local businessmen.
Minnesota officials had worked out a compromise with many of the Fillmore County group, allowing them to use black-and-white triangle signs instead of the orange.
But the otherwise law-abiding Amish here generally don't vote, and pressure on legislators from the non-Amish last year resulted in passage of a law requiring use of the orange signs at night.
Meanwhile, Mr. Hershberger follows a long line of Amish, Mennonite, and Anabaptist predecessors who stood up through nonresistance for their beliefs.
In the 16th century, a sheriff was pursuing one of them across a frozen river when the lawman fell through the ice. The fugitive returned to save him, was arrested, and burned at the stake.
Still today, says Miller, back at the auction, ``Almighty help is the best help - He can control them, we can't.''