When a triangle affronts religious beliefs

The refusal to use the devices on buggies signals a larger clash between religious rights and safety.

Jonas Miller doesn't get it. How – in William Penn's land of religious toleration – can the state force him to stand out, to be ostentatious even, in the face of his generations-old Amish values of humility and quiet?

Mary Ann Ambrisco doesn't get it either. How – in the same state of Pennsylvania, where she must keep her car inspected and carry insurance – can another citizen be allowed to ignore road rules and risk harm to himself or others?

Both Mr. Miller and Ms. Ambrisco are talking about a simple orange triangle, which state law requires on the backs of all slow-moving vehicles.

The ultratraditional Swartzentruber sect of Amish living in western Pennsylvania refuse to use the triangles on their horse-drawn buggies. The police have ticketed them, but they've resisted paying the fines. One farmer has even gone to jail as a result.

Matters came to a head when 19 Amish, responsible for a total of 24 tickets issued by state police in the past 12 months, appeared in Cambria County Court last month, defended by lawyers who were secured by the American Civil Liberties Union. All are due back here today to hear from traffic-safety experts arguing for each side.

The court will consider whether the safety of the public indeed requires the Amish to use the triangle or whether another measure might accomplish the same end. But the case is also the latest involving the Amish to raise much broader questions about the clash of religious rights and public safety. The question of which interest should take precedence, in fact, will likely propel the case far beyond little Ebensburg and into appeal in a larger court.

"Public safety versus religion: That issue's been debated since the Founding Fathers were around," says Cambria County District Attorney Dave Tulowitzki, who is arguing the case for the state. "I'm sure the case will go to the state Supreme Court, at the very least."

The approximately 80 Swartzentrubers, who came here from Ohio five years ago, travel these spectacular Allegheny hills in simple black buggies, often traveling just 10 to 15 miles a day at a crawl. Cars whiz by, some tooting the horn in greeting, a rare one intentionally startling the horses.

The Amish hope motorists drive slowly, and they try to pull aside onto the narrow shoulders of the road when they hear a car coming. Although they hang lanterns from their vehicles to provide some illumination, they believe their ultimate destiny is in the hands of God.

Even driving slowly, Ambrisco says it's hard to see the buggies at night and in the early mornings. "If it's real foggy, that's when it's scary. All of a sudden, you're upon them."

Yet she says the issue has caused no divisiveness – a sentiment shared by Ebensburg borough manager Dan Penatzer. He says there is "true respect" in the community for the Amish beliefs, and that the non-Amish seem evenly divided on the triangle rule. "The community just wants to see it settled," he said.

Still, the troopers at the Ebensburg state police barracks liken an unmarked buggy to a car driving without taillights – a violation of the state motor-vehicle code.

Mr. Tulowitzki, the district attorney, says many motorists have complained to police about near-misses on the winding, often-foggy county roads. But he could point to no accidents between cars and triangle-less buggies resulting in injuries.

To defense attorney Donna Doblick, meanwhile, the matter is clearly one of religious liberty. She believes the sacrifices motorists make by slowing down "pale in comparison" to the potential affront to Amish religious liberties.

While all Amish share the same doctrine, there is no central church government, and sects differ in the amount of technology allowed. The Swartzentrubers, in fact, are the only Amish in Pennsylvania who do not use the triangles.

Other states have allowed Swartzentrubers to use less-offensive reflective tape to outline the back of their buggies. A bill to allow that has been introduced in the Pennsylvania legislature.

In an Ebensburg parking lot one chilly morning recently, Miller set up a table of baskets for sale. He spoke in halting, lilting tones about his buggy. "The English [non-Amish] are just pushing us and pushing us. We're putting the lanterns on already." Now, he is willing to go further and put reflective tape on the back.

But in his heart, he believes his buggy should be as unadorned. "You see this?" He pointed to a black curtain. "It's plain. If I put flowers on it, it isn't plain anymore. If I put pictures on it, it isn't plain."

He adds, "I'm just curious that we get something worked out so everybody gets along. We don't want the English people to be mad at us. We don't want to be mad at them."

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