Friday, November 11, 2005

The Battle at Rocky Top Salvage Store - Part Two

I had a pleasant conversation last night with Ruth Irene Garrett, the ex-Amish woman I wrote about in the previous post, who is in a dispute with Erma Yoder, the proprietor of Rocky Top Salvage Store.

A reader of this blog sent me the website of Irene (as she prefers to be called.) It is here: The website has a contact email address, so I sent her an email raising some of the questions I mentioned in my last post. I soon got an email back from her husband, who told me that she had just arrived home, was leaving today on a book tour for a new children's book that she has coming out for the holidays and that she would like to talk with me by telephone. So, I called her up a few minutes before I needed to leave the office to go home for supper, and wound up talking half an hour.

By the end of the conversation, I was completely won over. She knows way more about Amish culture than I do. The Amish are even stranger than I had remembered.

We spent the first 10 minutes of our conversation doing what all Amish and Mennonites do on meeting each other; trying to figure out how we are related. It is a given that we are related, the only question is how far back the connection goes. She has connections to the Arthur community from which stem my Amish roots. She is probably at least a third cousin.

Irene's mother is from Kokomo, IN; but she grew up in Iowa. While I was Amish only because my parents were and left at the age of 10, when they left, Irene was baptized as a young teenager into the Amish church. Irene committed the sin not only of leaving the Amish church but marrying a divorced man, put her in a double whammy.

Irene was aware of the relatively mild shunning practiced by the Amish in Arthur, IL, and quickly rattled off five or six other Amish communities that are similarly "liberal." In Kokomo, IN, where Irene's mother is from, a ban lasts only for six weeks. In Iowa, where she grew up and left the Amish church, the ban is permanent. Once ex-communicated, the person is shunned until they come back to the church. In Iowa, commercial transactions are not allowed, and, in one case, involving Irene's aunt, who had also left the Amish church, an Amish person could not even touch money that her aunt had touched.

Irene's father is an Amish minister. Although he will allow her to come home and visit, her husband is not permitted on the property. Usually, Irene has someone else drive her to her parents' house for a visit, but one time her husband did so. He was not permitted to even sit in the car and wait for her on their property; her father ordered her husband off the property and made him sit across the road to wait. She said the visits, which she limits to several hours consist of her father preaching to her about her sinfulness and her mother sitting there crying.

Like the Amish of Illinois, the Iowa Amish would not have banned Irene if she had left to join a conservative non-Amish denomination. Her crime is compounded because she joined the Lutheran church, hardly considered Christian at all by the Amish, and she married a divorced man, so she is in a state of continual adultery.

The Glasgow, Kentucky area, where Irene now lives, has five separate groups of Amish, varying from the regular Old Order Amish to New Amish to Swartzendruber Amish to others. Some of the groups will not fellowship with each other. The Swartzendruber Amish are the strictest of the Amish in the Glasgow area and, according to Irene, will excommunicate and place in the ban any members who leave the group, even if it is to join another less severe Amish group.

Erma Yoder, the owner of the Rocky Top Salvage Store, does not belong to one of the strictest groups, Irene says. While her group forbids commercial transactions with a persons in the ban, it permits circumvention. For example, like the Sabbat goy Orthodox Jews can hire to turn their electric light switches on and off, Erma's Amish permit commercial transactions to be done with someone in the ban through a non-church member. So, Irene says, Erma could have had one of her non-church member children take Irene's payment for her groceries.

In fact, Irene says, that Erma did propose such a solution. Erma said that Irene could have her husband pay for the groceries. This would have been acceptable, because although he was helping Irene commit adultery by being married to her, he never belonged to the Amish church, so he was not ex-communicated. This would have been acceptable even though the payment would have been from the same joint checking account. Irene's husband was out in the car waiting for her, has difficulty walking, said "This is stupid," and refused to participate.

Irene told me that she had shopped in other Amish-owned stores in the community, been refused service in some and been allowed to make purchases in others. She said that the reason she pushed the issue in Erma's Rocky Top Salvage Store is that while the other Amish proprietors who refused her service did so quietly and politely and spoke to her in Pennsylvania Dutch so that other customers would not know what was going on, Erma spoke to her loudly and in English, which embarassed her. Irene says that when she protested, Erma said, "What are you going to do about it, write about it?"

I asked Irene why she didn't accept the free groceries Erma offered. She said that she didn't want Erma to say she just came to get free groceries.

Ottie, Irene's husband told me that they were surprised that the newspapers were reporting about the confrontation. Apparently, in Kentucky, like in Illinois, Human Relations Commission proceedings are not public. He states that the lawyer for Erma broke the story in their local newspaper. He emphasized that they are not looking for money; all they want is an apology and training for Amish store owners in human rights laws.

So, who is in the right here? I will let my readers decide. Which is more important, the First Amendment right to freely exercise one's religion or the laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religion? You decide.


Uncle Menno said...

Interesting piece, John. Google turned up the following related article from the context of Jewish law:

The article mentions the Robert Bear suit against the Reformed Mennonites, but also mentions that there are a surprising number of other traditions that practice the ban in some form or other. Not being a lawyer, I hadn't realized that there was such a body of case law on the topic.

Amishlaw said...

Thanks, uncle. I, too, had not realized that shunning is practiced among so many different groups. So, what's your conclusion in the case of Irene and Erma? Who would win if you were the judge?

Uncle Menno said...

My short answer is "Irene by a nose." The situation is more pointed because Erma is running a public business involving transactions with people who are not members of her sect and have no intention of becoming members. To the extent that Erma wants to play in that game, she has to abide by its rules, which exclude discrimination on the basis of religious affiliation--or lack thereof.

Nobody will mistake me for Solomon, eh?

Lauren said...

Irene and Erma just need to get together at the local Amish pub and drink some homemade moonshine together. I'm sure they would come up with a solution.

Anonymous said...

There may be a way to turn this into a "Reality Show." The already famous Rocky Top Salvage Store could be the background on the community dealing with mundane as well as hot issues.

Being called up to serve on the jury, I would have to go with Judge Solomon - Erma can't discriminate among her customers; her place of business is in the public domain. Her penalty in addition to legal costs should be to give the value of goods to a needy family.

Juror #1

Anonymous said...

My sentiments are the same as uncle menno's. If she's going to practice business with the rest of the world, she has to follow the laws of busines over the laws of religion. If she can't play by the rules, she can't play in our market.