Minnesota District Court Judge Joseph Chase, in a ruling dated April 22, decided in favor of Fillmore County and the State of Minnesota in the Amish septic system case. This case came before Judge Chase for trial in November and December 2018.
Four Amish men (members of the Swartzentruber Amish community of Fillmore County) were the plaintiffs arguing that they objected to the installation of a septic (gray water) system on their property based on “a sincerely held religious belief.” Attorney Brian Lipford, Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, argued on the plaintiffs’ behalf the religious liberty question, citing the Minnesota Constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Resources Act.
Fillmore County and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency argued they have a “compelling interest in protecting human health and environment.” Furthermore, “gray water” septic systems are the least restrictive means of ensuring proper treatment to protect human health and environment. Plaintiffs proposed a “mulch basin system” as being more acceptable to them. The government produced testimony that this kind of system would not adequately protect public health and the environment. Fillmore County Attorney Brett Corson represented the county.
Fillmore County ordinance requires rural residences to have a subsurface sewage treatment system (SSTS) for the disposal of residential wastewater. Gray water is defined as water used in the home in sinks, washing machines, baths, and showers. Toilet water is “black water.” Amish communities use outhouses for toilets, a practice which is permitted by law. Therefore, their household water is gray water.
Zoning Administrator Cristal Adkins explained that a gray water system is a downsized system designed to handle a lesser flow of water. It includes a 1,000 gallon tank and a 100-foot drain field.
The Amish plaintiffs testified that their objection to the state mandated septic systems stems from their religious belief that these systems must be avoided as a way of the world. A principle guiding the Amish community is that their religious beliefs require them to reject worldly ways. The “Ordnung” specifically prohibits installation of a gray water system; “this is a septic system and septic systems have never been permitted.” This technology is an innovation inconsistent with the Original Canton church’s Ordnung which has never permitted septic systems.
The government pointed out the above point of view is not shared by all Swartzentruber Amish. The government noted the plaintiffs already use most of the components and materials that make up a gray water system to move water into their houses. They have a clean water holding tank from which water is gravity fed through piping into the house. Plaintiffs argue it isn’t the components that are objected to, but the mechanism (septic system) which is new to them and is religiously objected to.
Dr. Sara Heger, an engineer, researcher and instructor in the Onsite Sewage Treatment Program in the Water Resources Center at the University of Minnesota, testified for the government saying inadequately treated gray water presents substantial and serious danger to public health. Proper waste treatment is more urgent in Fillmore County because of its karst topography, allowing contamination to get into the drinking water aquifer much faster. The government’s septic system requirements are the least restrictive that can also protect public health and the environment. A less religiously burdensome alternative is not available.
Both Amish and English drink water from the same aquifer. To introduce untreated gray water into the soil and waters of Fillmore County interferes with the rights and interests of others. Chase concluded public health and environmental safety interests can not be accomplished by a less religiously intrusive alternative means. He denied the relief sought by the plaintiffs under the Minnesota Constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
Enforcement of the Fillmore County zoning provisions have yet to be determined. Attorney Corson explained the plaintiffs have 60 days to appeal Judge Chase’s decision to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. If it is not appealed, the enforcement process is the next step. The best case scenario is for members of the Amish community to come into compliance voluntarily. If not, the government will go back to court to get a timeline put into place for compliance. Many in the Amish community have already resolved to be compliant and have installed a gray water system.