Amish seek class-action status in sewer case

The Amish community in Sugar Grove Township, having failed to challenge a requirement to connect to a public sewer on technical grounds is now turning to a higher authority -their religion.

The dispute between members of the Amish community and the Sugar Grove Area Sewer Authority over whether the Amish must connect to the system has been ongoing since at least 2010.

As a result of a hearing Thursday morning, the Amish families of Sugar Grove Township subject to the township sewer ordinance were certified as a class by President Judge Maureen Skerda for the purpose of an eventual class action judgment.

Representing the Amish community, attorney Bernard J. Hessley, said the class could include as many as 150 families and 871 individuals.

“The issue has been whether or not the (ordinance) can constitutionally apply to the Amish,” he explained, as connecting to the system would violate their religious beliefs.

Such beliefs include not using electricity and plumbing, which would both be required for connecting to the sewer system.

Hessley said he is prepared to notify the members of community that fit in the class as soon as he receives addresses from the Amish.

Skerda said that this “seems apparent it meets certification” and that the “class is similarly situated.”

She said her order will reflect the certification of the class as well as the focus of the class on the religious freedom issue.

The Authority’s attorney, Andrea Stapleford, said nine municipal liens were filed against members of the Amish community for not connecting to the system. “The Authority is ready to connect,” she said, noting the collection would be a “significant amount of revenue.”

Skerda said that since she had no petition from Stapleford outlining these concerns she couldn’t address them.

After the hearing, Hessley argued that in the previous cases on this issue the arguments “didn’t sufficiently raise the religious freedom issue.” That is the reason for the new class action filing.

He said the end result would be a “declaratory judgment as class action for all (Amish) in Sugar Grove affected by the ordinance.”

Hessley said such a judgment would be the result of a bench trial where experts in the field, as well as members of the Amish community, would argue their case. He said he is hoping such a trial takes place sometime this summer.