This is a timely topic now for me because The Amish Cook's house just experienced a serious fire. The smoke alarm upstairs likely saved their home and maybe some lives. Lovina was in the kitchen downstairs when they heard a smoke alarm going off upstairs. The fire department said if they had arrived only 3 minutes later, the house would have been gone. So one can conjecture the horrible scenarios that might have occurred had Lovina not had smoke alarms. And she had to have them as part of their home being approved by local building inspectors. Needless to say, Lovina is a fan of smoke detectors. Her Old Order Amish community does not object to them and compliantly comply with the local regulations. Not all Amish do, however,. So the issue is: should a private home be required to have smoke detectors?
The BBC ran an article over the weekend about the issue and how it is playing out among a Swartzentruber Amish sect in Upstate New York. To me, it's a tough issue. Are smoke detectors a good idea? YES!! Should they be required in any public place: YES! But a private home where one's religious convictions preach against such devices? What do you think?
The BBC piece is compelling. There were some items in the article, though, that I thought seemed to stretch belief. Are Amish children really barred by their parents from entering Canton, New York, the nearest town to their settlement? That seemed a little silly because you doubt an Amish child - or any child - would be going into town alone anyway. But traveling with their parents would seem to be acceptable, at least in the Swartzentruber communities I have visited. And are they really walking around barefoot when it is 5 degrees outside> Karen Johnson-Weiner responded to a request from me via the Swartzentruber's defense attorney, Steve Ballan, to clarify. Here is what she said:
Parents tend not to take children with them on trips or into town. Basically, kids travel with their parents only when they're very young--or in the young folk. They are in no way barred--there's just not any reason for them to leave home and go to town. Kids don't sleep on hard pallets--they have mattresses. And they would not be barefoot at 5 degrees F.
Another issue in the article is about having a central milk dump station so the Amish can avoid contact with a truck driver. Again, not completely accurate, that would just be one of a variety of reasons. This is what Johnson-Weiner writes in her excellent book, New York Amish.
More philosophically, a Swartzentruber bishop, acknowledging that the dumping stations were a sharp departure from past practice, put the change in Amish perspective. It would, he noted, make it possible for young men to keep farming, helping to ensure that life in the community would remain agriculturally based. With a more secure income, there would be less need for farmers to hire out to do carpentry or other work outside the community. Finally, he argued, building dumping stations was really “a step backwards,” a move away from the modern world. As he pointed out, because milk truck drivers would no longer go to individual Amish farms to pick up cans of milk, the dumping stations would make the non-Amish world less intrusive in the daily life of the Swartzentruber settlement; farmers would deliver their cans of milk to the dumping station by horse-drawn wagon.
Mrs. A. Yoder
I feel that the statements regarding the "squirrely" Mose Miller and his unkempt home and children was a very derogatory depiction and I would go so far as to say that this is such a far cry from the Amish I know that it strains all credibility. My guess is the reporter couldn't find someone willing to speak with him for his piece so he fabricated a meeting with an Amish man and described him based on his own pre-conceived notions.
I am very torn as to whether or not the Swartentruber Amish of upstate New York should be required to use smoke detectors. I understand that, as conservative a sect as they are, this would seem to be against all they believe in. However, especially in homes with children, it would be so much more wise to have this extra precautionary measure. I'm sure Lovina and Joe were very grateful for their alarms, as they still have a home to live in at this time, and their children are all unharmed. It's such a gray area when you are trying to legislate morality in any way, which is precisely what is happening with the attempts to "modernize" the Amish.
I do feel very strongly however that, in this country that was founded on the principle of freedom of religion, it is not up to the courts to decide what one religious group should or should not do. My grandfather on my father's side was a pastor in a backwoods Indiana Church of the Nazarene and before I was born (I'm now 41), they routinely engaged in snake handling during services. This is not a practice that I think is wise; however, I would defend their right to do so if they still chose to perform this act. I should note that they voluntarily gave up this practice on a command from God (according to my Grandfather); the law did not make them stop.
Well said, Mrs. Yoder, on all counts. You captured my ambivalence on this issue too. On one hand, I hate to see religious rights trampled upon in any way. Interestingly, as "Anabaptists" (adult baptizers) the Amish historically have believed that children are not mature enough to choose their faith, so baptism is held off until adulthood. That being the case, you'd almost think the Swartzentrubers would make the smoke alarm exception for their children's sake until they're old enough to decide such safety measures for themselves. It's a tough issue, I think!