When policy and religion contradict

At what point does public interest trump personal freedom?

That’s the question at the heart of ongoing proceedings between the Sugar Grove Area Sewer Authority (SuGASA) and Barbara and Joseph Yoder.

Last Wednesday, Judge Gregory Hammond heard arguments on a motion for judgment on the proceedings in relation to the civil case.

In 2008, Sugar Grove Township, at the behest of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), expanded its sewer system.

The expansion stretched into areas including a number of properties belonging to Amish families. One of those families was the Yoders.

By ordinance, all habitable properties within 150 feet of the new system were required to hook into the SuGASA sewage system.

The Yoders, however, are opposed to the usage of forced water and electricity on the basis of their religious beliefs. Tying into the system would have required them to allow both on their property forced water to move effluent through the system and electricity to run a grinder pump which would have needed to be installed at the site.

At the time, SuGASA and the Yoders came to an agreement. They would not be required to hook into the system and could continue using their existing privy and septic tank. In exchange, they would pay the connection charge, pay for sewage service and have their sewage pumped and sent for disposable through the SuGASA sewage system.

The Yoders did have their system pumped, per the agreement, but there was a problem. The Yoders hired a company from Jamestown, N.Y., to do the pumping. The company, however, didn’t take its load to the SuGASA system and that caused a violation of the agreement between SuGASA and the Yoders.

SuGASA claimed the incident invalidated the agreement and insisted the Yoders connect to its sewage system. The Yoders refused on the basis of their religious convictions. The impasse led to SuGASA filing a request for relief with the court which, many motions from the opposing sides later, led to a motion for judgment on the proceedings which was argued on Wednesday.

A motion for judgment on the proceedings is a request for a ruling by the court appropriate in a case where a trial would be fruitless. It differs from a motion for summary judgment in which a request is made for the court to make a ruling based on a lack of issue over material facts.

In the Yoder case, both SuGASA and the Yoders agree on the material facts. Namely, that the Yoders own the property in question, the property is within the scope of the sewage expansion project area, the property is within 150 feet of the sewage system and falls within the requirement to connect.

“They themselves have admitted there is no issue of law,” Andrea Stapleford, attorney for SuGASA, argued.

She said that SuGASA is asking the court to order the Yoders to connect, allow SuGASA to connect the Yoder property on its own or to remove the Yoders from the premises.

She said SuGASA’s preference was an order to make the Yoder’s connect or to allow SuGASA to connect the property. According to Stapleford, the option of having them removed from the premises was included in the original action as a last resort.

Atty. Bernard J. Hessley argued granting a judgment would be inappropriate, as a ruling on an appeal of a declaratory judgment against the Yoders is still pending. The appeal is related to a judgment concerning the Yoders and other members of the Amish community related to back fees in cases concerning connection to the SuGASA sewage system. The appeal claims the judgment, and order to pay future service fees, is tantamount to a tax on the Amish community’s religious beliefs.

Hessley cited Pennsylvania’s Religious Freedom Protection Act of 2002, which sets out the test to determine whether an action is a substantial burden to religious freedom, and guidelines for instances in which the public interest allows a substantial burden to be placed upon religious freedom. It also requires any permitted burden to be implemented by, “the least restrictive means of furthering the compelling interest.”

Specifically, Hessley cited subsection four of the definition of a substantial burden which reads, “An agency action which… compels conduct or expression which violates a specific tenet of a person’s religious faith.”

He asserted connecting to the system constituted such conduct.

“There’s always a balance between the personal freedom of the property owner and the public interest,” Hammond noted, saying SuGASA alleges not hooking into the sewage system presents a public danger. “In this case, the proper disposal of sewage waste.”

Hessley responded that SuGASA has never shown proof that the Yoders’ effluvia has ever contaminated any groundwater and that a public danger must be proven.

“The state has said this is a compelling public interest,” Hammond said. “The state has decided proper disposal of sewage is in the public interest. People with $40,000 systems that work just fine still have to comply with this ordinance.”

Hessley also argued that complying with an order to hook into the system could result in the Yoders being excommunicated and that they believe they face “eternal damnation” if they comply.

“They’re concerned about their immortal soul,” Hessley said.

Hammond said he did not feel the constitutional argument, based on infringement of religious freedom, was appropriate to the proceeding, but that it could be appropriate in a possible later appeal.

“In the past, the Amish community has had to comply with the state’s interests,” Hammond noted.

Hessley argued whether the state held that constitutional authority without proof of public danger.

“I don’t think the state has the power, lacking proof of a leaky privy, lacking proof of contamination of others’ property,” Hessley said.

Hammond cited cases in which it was ruled sewage authorities do not have to check every independent system before enacting ordinances requiring property owners to hook into a system.

Stapleford argued the contamination failure rate for an entire area, not individual properties, is used by the DEP to determine whether an area must have sewage service.

“That’s how we came to have a sewer system in Sugar Grove,” she noted.

Hammond questioned Stapleford on whether it was appropriate for him to rule on the proceedings without a ruling on whether requiring the Yoders to comply would violate their religious freedom.

Stapleford cited actions the SuGASA has taken to try to accommodate the Yoders, such as the violated agreement.

“Our position is, there is no issue of material fact,” she said, indicating a ruling was appropriate.

Hessley argued the possibility of a violation of religious freedom makes application of the Religious Freedom Protection Act test applicable. He said the possibility was an issue which, in his opinion, required a hearing prior to a ruling.

“I don’t see any disputed facts,” Hammond said. “So it comes down to the constitutional argument.”

Hammond made no ruling. He instructed the attorneys he was permitting 30 days for the filing of briefs in support and against making a ruling.

Hammond said he would rule on the matter within 30 additional days of the end of the filing period.