Religious minorities jailed over plastic triangle
Nine men from America’s Amish community face prison today after ignoring road safety rules. They say reflective signs, demanded on their vehicles by law, are against their religion.
The Amish like to call themselves the ‘plain people’. In a world of high fashion, fast food and flashy cars they stand out like a bunch of oddly dressed sore thumbs, rejecting the comforts of modernity in favour of a lifestyle that has hardly changed in three hundred years.
Followers of a strict Protestant sect, the Amish first arrived in the USA in the 18th Century, fleeing from religious persecution in Germany and Switzerland. Settling in the rural northeast, they devoted themselves to maintaining their independence and defending their traditional way of life against the ‘corrupting’ influence of the modern world.
Their communities are islands of quiet in a great sea of noise. There is no electricity in strict Amish homes; no television or radio; no plastic toys or modern clothes. Anything that could be regarded as ‘worldly’ is banned. Most of all, there are no cars. To disobey these rules, the Amish believe, would be to go against the will of God.
But, as populations grow and the land becomes more crowded, the Amish are increasingly forced into contact with the wider public – and such encounters do not always end well. Amish have faced discrimination from ordinary people who call them ‘freaks’, or worse. Outsiders, meanwhile, can feel uncomfortable when dealing with a group that rejects the things they stand for and regards them as sinners.
Then there are more practical difficulties. Amish families travel in pony-carts, sharing state highways with cars and lorries. Fragile, slow-moving and without lights, these ‘buggies’ are frequently involved in road accidents with motor vehicles. For Amish drivers, these crashes are usually fatal.
In an effort to lower the casualty rate, state authorities across America have been requiring the Amish to stick reflective plastic triangles on the back of their carts.
Many have agreed – but some very traditional Amish communities think the reflective triangles are an offence against God and a violation of their ancient code. Despite warnings, fines, and – following a missed court deadline yesterday – probable jail sentences, they simply refuse to obey the law.
To some state officials, this refusal is dangerous, foolish and wrong. By refusing to use proper safety equipment, they put themselves, their families and other drivers at risk – and all for the sake of avoiding a few inches of shiny plastic.
But the Amish have defenders too. This debate, they say, is not just about road safety; it is about religious freedom – the very thing the Amish came to America to find. The freedom of a people to follow their beliefs is not something to be sacrificed for safety; it is an inalienable right.
- Should Amish drivers be forced to have reflective triangles on their buggies?
- Would you want to live an Amish lifestyle? Do you think there might beanyadvantages?
- Imagine a court case in which a car driver and a buggy driver argue over who should bear the blame for their recent collision. In groups, sketch out the beliefs, feelings and motivations for each character and then improvise a scene in which they meet in court.
- Do some further research on the history of the Amish and create a timeline tracing their progress from Central Europe to the modern USA.
Some People Say...
“Religious freedom is just an excuse for crazy behaviour.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- All this fuss over a plastic triangle?
- There’s more to it than that. This is a matter of principle that affects people all over the world.
- Like how?
- Think about things like debates over religious jewellery in schools, or over veils and headscarves for teachers, or polygamy among Mormons, or the rights of religious groups to use illegal drugs in certain ceremonies.
- So... can I just set up my own religion and then use ‘religious freedom’ as an excuse to do anything?
- It’s not that simple. Back in 2001, there was a movement to make ‘being a Jedi’ an official religion in the UK. Around 380,000 people came out in support – but the government remained unconvinced. Religions need to have some serious history in order to count.
- The Amish sect (named after its founder Jakob Ammann) split off from the Mennonite sect (itself an offshoot of the wider Anabaptist movement) in the late 17th Century. Many Amish people still speak a Germanic dialect that links them to their roots back in Switzerland and Central Europe.
- Sore thumbs
- The expression ‘stick out like a sore thumb’ means to be obvious. The phrase comes about because of the way a thumb wrapped up in bandages sticks out from the other fingers at an odd angle.
- State authorities
- In the USA, some legal matters are decided not by the federal government in Washington but by lawmakers from the individual states. So, what is legal in Pennsylvania, for example, may be illegal in Kentucky.
- Inalienable right
- The founding document of the USA, its constitution, talks of certain ‘inalienable rights’. These are rights that can never be taken away from a person.