Sugar Grove Amish couple win appeal in religious freedom dispute with sewer authority

By Dawn Geske | Jun 28, 2016

HARRISBURG – An Amish couple have won an appeal against the Sugar Grove Sewer Authority that will allow them to connect to the township’s sewer system in the way that is least restrictive to their religious beliefs.

The recent order by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania follows an appeal submitted by Sugar Grove Township residents Barbara L. Yoder and Joseph I. Yoder.

The original municipal complaint filed by the Sewer Authority in 2010 against the residents was in response to non-payment of sewer fees based on a Sewer Service Agreement signed by the parties in 2008.

Under the Sewer Service Agreement, the Yoders agreed to pay connection fees, past due sewer charges, future monthly charges and to dispose of their waste at least once a year at the Sewer Authority’s pumping station. The Yoders are Old Order Amish and have religious beliefs that go against the use of electricity and running water, requiring them to use an outhouse for waste collection.

“Most likely this is a more conservative group,” Erik Wesner, founder of Amish America, a resource for information on the Amish population, told the Pennsylvania Record.

“Amish don't use public electricity in their homes, but that doesn't sound like that is the situation here. However, Amish have historically had objections to a connection to public electricity from a symbolic standpoint - as it represents a tie to the world.

"Amish in more conservative groups are more likely to be sensitive to these types of concerns.”

When the Yoders failed to pay sewer fees, the Sewer Authority filed a complaint as well as a separate action for breach of the agreement. It also was seeking an injunction to require the Yoders to connect to the sewer system.

The trial and appeals court ruled in favor of the Sewer Authority in this matter, requiring the Yoders to connect to the sewer system. If they failed to comply with the ruling, the court authorized the Sewer Authority to enter the property and connect it to the sewer system at the Yoders' expense.

While the parties disagreed over the connection method to the sewer, the Sewer Authority requested that the Yoders open an electricity account to run a grinder pump to connect to the sewer system. In response, the Yoders filed a petition for injunctive relief.

The court ruled that the Yoders would not be required to open an electricity account, but could be billed for usage through the Sewer Authority, and that connection would be at the discretion of the Sewer Authority and at the Yoders' expense.

Karla Chaffee, an associate at Robinson+Cole, in Boston wasn't surprised by the ruling being overturned. 

“It is in line with a lot of First Amendment, freedom of religion cases," she told the Pennsylvania Record.  

"The fact that municipalities or a governmental agency has an obligation that if they have to restrict a religious belief because of a health or safety code, they do so with the least possible intrusion on religious exercise possible.

"So what the court really did is it said you parties have to go back to the drawing board and think about the best possible way you can still require connection to the sewer, but do so with the least impact on religious exercise.”

With the large population of Amish communities in Pennsylvania, Chaffee said, “the townships must learn to work together with the Amish people."

“I think the biggest takeaway is that townships have to work with the Amish population to accommodate their religious exercise in the best way possible while still meeting the compelling interests in the health, safety and sanitary codes," she said. 

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