Sunday, November 06, 2005

Yoder's Rocky Top Salvage

There's an interesting battle being fought in Kentucky between Erma Yoder, an Amish woman, and Ruth Irene Garrett, an ex-Amish woman, that involves a clash between the First Amendment right to freedom of religion and human rights laws that make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of religion. (The Lexington Herald-Leader has a story about it here

Supposedly, Erma refused to do business with Ruth Irene when she came into her grocery salvage store because Ruth Irene had been excommunicated from the Amish in Iowa where Ruth Irene grew up. Ruth Irene has written several books about being Amish and her "escape" from the Amish, and Erma supposedly recognized her from her picture on the book jacket.

According to this article, and others which have been in the media over the last several days, Erma offered to give Ruth Irene the groceries, but was afraid she would go to hell if she accepted Ruth's money.

Kentucky apparently has a law, like Illinois and many other states, that makes it unlawful to discriminate in employment, and also in public accommodations, on the basis of religion. Such a law makes sense. A store should not be able to put a sign out front; "No Catholics Admitted," or "We Don't Sell to Jews." On the other hand, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits a state from interfering with a person's right to freely exercise her religion, with some limitations, of course. Mormons cannot have more than one wife, and certain Indian tribes cannot use peyote in their religious rites.

But this story smells. I've been Amish. I've been a newspaper reporter. I am a lawyer and I've handled many discrimination claims, including claims of religious discrimination (although in Illinois, not Kentucky.)

First the caveats. Although Amish communities in different localities have many similarities, there are also many differences; differences that an outsider might not recognize. That is because there is no Amish pope. Each Amish church district makes its own rules. The rules tend to be similar, but there are also many variations. The prayer coverings the women wear, vary in size, style and manner of wearing. One Amish district may require its women to tie their prayer coverings with strings in front of the neck; another may allow the women to put the strings behind the neck. There are variations in how the dress is made. There are variations in how the practice of shunning is enforced.

The Anabaptist movement from which Mennonites descended started in Zurich, Switzerland in 1525. In 1545, the movement first began to be called "Menists," or "Mennonites" after a Catholic priest, Menno Simons, in The Netherlands, who became well known as a writer in behalf of the movement. The Amish got started about 150 years later in southern Germany, when a young Mennonite minister, Jacob Ammann, insisted that the Mennonites had gotten too lax in church discipline. Ammann was something of a nut and went around placing in the ban, thus calling for shunning, everyone who disagreed with him. At one point, he even placed himself in the ban.

The purpose of shunning, which like everything else, can be justified by reference to a verse in the Bible, is not to punish but to make the sinner realize the seriousness of the sin; get him/her to stop sinning and return to the church. It is not practiced against anyone who has never been a church member.

The way that shunning is practiced, at least in the Amish churches with which I am familiar, is that it is very pro forma, done for a brief time, and after it is clear the "sinner" is not going to return to the church, it is dropped. So, although a church member is not supposed to eat with someone who is in the ban, when a family member is being shunned, they may be required to eat at a table, technically separate from the table at which the other members eat, but the two tables are separated by a crack so small that someone ignorant of what was going on would not notice it.

My parents were briefly in the ban after they left the Amish church. The only consequence was that one of my uncles refused to ride in my father's car for about six months after my parents left the church. After that, all was forgiven, and his Amish siblings were happy to not only eat with him, but to be hauled around by him.

I question the newspaper story on several levels. It is odd to me that Erma would have read the books Ruth wrote and recognized Ruth from the book jacket. Why would someone as devout as the story paints Erma, waste her time reading an infidel-written book when she could be reading the Bible? Secondly, the story claims Erma offered to give Ruth the groceries Ruth attempted to purchase, but would not accept money from her for fear of going to hell.

I have read a good bit of Mennonite and Amish history, and I have lots of personal experience with Amish, although admittedly, the Amish who are my relatives do not live in Kentucky. I have never heard of anyone advocating the idea that shunning would prevent someone from being paid money for goods, but would permit giving the goods away. That makes no sense. How would a "sinner" come to repentance by getting free groceries instead of having to pay for them?

Nor have I ever heard or read of any Amish teaching that an Amish person who does not shun someone in the ban would go to hell. Even the most ardent shunners view it as a tactic to convince the "sinner" to repent. All of the Amish churches with which I am familiar view the practice of shunning as optional, not mandatory.

Finally, from a legal standpoint, I doubt that the Kentucky law against religious discrimination would view giving merchandise to a customer, instead of receiving payment for it, as anything actionable. How has the customer been harmed? Indeed, I would think that Yoder's Rocky Top Salvage Store would become Ruth's favorite shopping place. Talk about low, low prices!

I think the problem here is in the reporting. I doubt that the newspaper reporter had anything other than a superficial knowledge of the Amish, and he didn't know what questions to ask, so we got a story that is basically absurd. Absurd, but interesting.


Debra Hope said...

I particularly love the part about Irene offering to give away the groceries. Come, now, do any of us know an Amishman (or a Mennonite, for that matter) who would turn down a buck? My goodness, these lawyers would have a field day if they knew about my Aunt Vera's Amish friend who doubles the prices on all the merchandise in her quilt store when she knows that bus full of quilt-buyin' Chicago women is about to hit town.

Anonymous said...

Amishlaw, you do have first cousins in Kentucky, but I don't know if they live in this community. I find the story as reported in the newspaper completely plausible. The "escapee" is obviously a notorious woman in that community and people would read her book. Our former community in Arthur is notoriously lax in applying the ban. It is more commonly a lifetime ban, which is circumvented in communities such as Lancaster, by having banned family members sit on the other side of a crack between two tables at family gatherings.

Anonymous said...

JWs also practice shunning. Were you involved in the "Paul v. WatchTower" case in Illinois?

The following website summarizes approximately 150 lawsuits, formal complaints, etc filed by Jehovah's Witness EMPLOYEES, who claimed religious discrimination:


Amishlaw said...

Thanks, anonymous, I'll look up the website. No, I wasn't involved in the case you mention.

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