Accommodating the Amish

One of the dangers of an overlarge federal government comes when minority groups run afoul of government regulations and laws that were not originally aimed at them. Government agencies often try to force the minority to conform, even at the risk of that group's constitutional rights.

A recent example affects the Amish, the quiet religious community that rejects significant parts of modern life. Amish youths traditionally finish their formal education at age 14 or 15 and then go to work on the family farm.

In recent years, however, both economics (the rising cost of land) and their own large families have pushed many Amish out of agriculture and into occupations such as woodworking or carpentry. Amish youths train under the supervision of a father, uncle, or other member of the Amish community to learn the craft.

Such an apprenticeship system was a normal part of American life not too many generations ago. The pacifist Amish believe that families working together are important to preserving their religion and way of life.

Enter the United States Labor Department. Tipped off by non-Amish competitors of the communities' workshops, Labor Department inspectors pounced on several Amish sawmills in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana. They fined them thousands of dollars for allegedly violating child- labor laws by employing workers under age 18.

To rectify the situation, the House last year passed a bill to permit the employment of minors between ages 14 and 18 in businesses where wood-processing machinery is used if the youths are members of a religious group whose teachings prohibit formal education beyond eighth grade.

The bill, which amends the Fair Labor Standards Act, would require supervision by an adult relative or member of the religious community. It would prohibit youths from operating any power-driven woodworking machines and require protection from wood particles, flying debris, sawdust, and excessive noise.

Since the Senate failed to act last year, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce recently repassed the bill and sent it to the floor. The measure represents a responsible accommodation, embracing both the needs of the Amish and the larger community's need to protect youth workers. Both houses should swiftly pass it into law. Respect for the Constitution and our cherished religious liberty demands no less.

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