SCOTUS sides with Amish, further discussions on environmental damage and animal impacts

Abby Donnelly
Abby Donnelly/Chester County

(CHESTER, Pennsylvania) A barefoot Amish boy wearing a straw hat and overalls pitter patters throughout the barn, slipping on rails and kicking his muddy feet. The mums outside the barn are electric and the cerulean sky magnetic, but the barn beneath the boy’s feet is stockpiled with animals lacking his same energy. His modest world, though rooted in simplicity, has been challenged at the highest court in the federal judiciary.

On July 2, Supreme Court judges determined the constitutionality of Minnesota requiring Amish families to adopt a septic system or face hefty financial and legal penalties. In protection of religious freedom, SCOTUS sided with the Amish, particularly the Swartzentruber affiliation, and returned the case to a lower court. Justice Gorsuch concurred, “In this country, neither the Amish nor anyone else should have to choose between their farms and their faith.” Though the ruling of Mast v. County of Fillmore was a conversation on plumbing, the case extends the tension between local governments and Amish communities over the potentially harming impact of certain water disposal methods. 

The Swartzentrubers involved in the SCOTUS case reside primarily in central Ohio and remain one of the most conservative Amish affiliations in the nation. While there are no Swartzentrubers in Chester County, eastern Pennsylvania is the home to around 2,580 Amish residents, where similar legal battles rattle throughout the community. Though the Swartzentrubers do not use indoor plumbing, local subgroups usually have septic systems by moving into or building more modern homes, noted Dr. Steven Nolt, Director for Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College. 

While having indoor plumbing curbs harmful waste disposal, local Amish farms maintain agricultural practices that directly damage water sources. Amish farms’ small size creates significant setbacks to properly controlling agricultural runoff from livestock or excess water on fields that streamlines into the Chesapeake Bay. The result is environmental damage that fuels algae growths in aquatic ecosystems, causing entire populations to die.

The Chesapeake Bay’s largest source of pollution is agricultural runoff, accounting for over 40% of nitrogen and phosphorus introduced into the area. Nitrogen and phosphorus shield underwater grasses from sunlight and drain the water of oxygen, creating “dead zones” that can cause fish to die, toxic blue-green algae to flourish, and parasites to infect. 

Local and federal government agencies have attempted to address the environmental damage caused by agricultural runoff on Amish farms but have faced long-standing resistance. Mitigating the pollution carries both significant agricultural and financial costs for the humble farms. 

“The Amish tend to not accept government grants,” Dr. Nolt explained, “And farmers feel like it doesn’t make their farms viable.” Environmental agencies, however, claim better practices are doable. 

The unfocused commitment to animal impacts has been the subject of many Amish legal conversations. Animals are viewed as functions of manufacturing rather than companionship, since Amish lifestyles rely on fresh farm-grown food and manual labor to sustain each home and business. Conventional traditions utilize horses to pull buggies, cows for beef, and dogs to breed. This traditional, productivity and output-centered perspective, however, transmits into a different definition of animal responsibility.  

The visible impacts of insufficient caretaking on Amish horses, cows, chickens and dogs has fueled responses from animal protection non-profits. While the individual choices of each Amish farmer may negatively impact their animals, Amish communities at large play a hand in the environmental damage harming entire populations of aquatic animals. 

Superficial stories of Amish livestock abuse only scratch the surface of potential long-term consequences due to traditional practices. Dr. Nolt points out that as more Amish lead the agricultural industry as less non-Amish have become farmers in Chester and Lancaster counties, the environmental and aquatic ecosystem impacts will continue to deepen. 

Mast v. County of Fillmore ultimately demonstrates the social and religious fabrics woven into climate change and environmental damage that may have irreversible consequences.

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A Delaware-based journalist highlighting local stories on health, education, and science. Abby is an undergraduate at Georgetown University studying global health and journalism.

Wilmington, DE

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