September 14th, 2011
08:52 PM ET

Amish men jailed over refusal to use orange safety triangle on buggies

By Kim Hutcherson, CNN

(CNN) - A group of Kentucky Amish men would prefer to do jail time rather than violate their religious beliefs, which they say forbids the placement of bright orange safety triangles on the backs of their buggies.

The orange triangles are required on all slow-moving vehicles, according to Kentucky state law.

Nine men in the western part of the state have refused to use them. They belong to the Old Order Swartzentruber Amish.

According to court documents, this sect follows a strict code of conduct, called Ordnung, which "regulates everything from hairstyle and dress to education and transportation." They believe that displays of "loud" colors should be avoided, along with the use of "worldly symbols." Swartzentruber Amish believe such symbols indicate the user no longer trusts fully in God.

The Swartzentruber Amish use reflective tape, but refuse to use the orange triangle.

After the appeal of their 2008 conviction was denied, Menno Zook, Danny Byler, Mose Yoder, Levi Hotetler, David Zook and Eli Zook refused to pay the small fines associated with their conviction. All six are currently serving sentences ranging from three to 10 days in the Graves County Jail, according to the jail's website.

Two other men, Jacob Gingerich and Emanuel Yoder, have already served their sentences and been released, the website says.

The men are "very polite, respectful, everything you would expect," said Graves County Chief Deputy Tim Warren. He said the men dressed up in their "Sunday best" to report for their jail sentences. The men are not forced to wear the orange county jail uniforms, Warren said. They are allowed to wear uniforms that are dyed a dark gray, but they are not allowed to wear their own clothes.

A ninth man, Levi Zook, had his fine paid by John Via, a Graves County resident who has close ties among the Amish community.

Via said he paid the fine because Levi Zook has a son with cerebral palsy. "The Lord just put it on me," Via said. "It was bothering me too much. I know the problems in that area."

Via says there is another problem with the orange triangle for the Swartzentruber Amish. The triangle is a symbol of the Holy Trinity - God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. Swartzentruber Amish believe in the unity of God, says Via, which motivates their refusal to use the symbol, in addition to the other reasons.

In their appeal, the men argued not only that Kentucky law violated their freedom of religious expression, but that the law has been selectively applied against the Swartzentruber Amish.

It is an assessment with which Via and his wife agree. Both questioned why the men were not allowed to wear their "plain" Amish clothes in jail when other arrested people were allowed to wear their own clothing. "People around here feel sorry for them," said Via's wife, Dolores.

Via points out that the Swartzentruber Amish use a high-quality reflective tape on their buggies, along with lanterns and red reflector lights. They are trying to comply with the law, Via said, without violating their religious beliefs.

But he says the men - some of whom are elders and deacons in their church - see this as a battle over religious expression. "They don't want the fines paid," Via said. "They want to serve their sentences."

And the story may not end when those sentences are served. Via says the Swartzentruber Amish could take their grievances over Kentucky's safety triangle laws to the federal level. "The Swartzentruber Amish are the most strict order," he said. "They will not do certain things. And they will not use that triangle."

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Amish • Crime • Kentucky

soundoff (1,221 Responses)
  1. Frank Garrett

    Been spending most my life living in an Amish Paradise, Raised a barn on Monday, soon I'll raise a nutta

    September 15, 2011 at 9:22 am |
    • Chris

      Baha I forgot about that song. Oh Weird Al.

      September 15, 2011 at 9:23 am |
    • William Demuth

      As I walk through the valley where I harvest my grain
      I take a look at my wife and realize she's very plain
      But that's just perfect for an Amish like me
      You know, I shun fancy things like electricity
      At 4:30 in the morning I'm milkin' cows
      Jebediah feeds the chickens and Jacob plows... fool
      And I've been milkin' and plowin' so long that
      Even Ezekiel thinks that my mind is gone
      I'm a man of the land, I'm into discipline
      Got a Bible in my hand and a beard on my chin
      But if I finish all of my chores and you finish thine
      Then tonight we're gonna party like it's 1699

      September 15, 2011 at 9:25 am |
  2. Chris

    Seriously Americans, this is ridiculous.

    It's getting to the point where I don't think your citizens actually believe in the freedom of religious expression anymore.

    They have reflective tape, lanterns, and red reflector lights. They're not a hazard, so leave them alone.

    Why do I feel like the real problem is that they're "different"?

    September 15, 2011 at 9:22 am |
    • Frank Garrett

      These freaks need to get out of the 1500's, get a job, and start paying taxes like everyone else.

      September 15, 2011 at 9:25 am |
    • Chris

      Thank you, Frank, for adding direct evidence to my claim.

      How are they hurting you exactly?

      Or is there a chance that you're just so unhappy with your own life that you have to take it out on...the Amish, apparently.

      September 15, 2011 at 9:26 am |
    • TeachTolerance

      Actually Frank, the Amish do pay taxes. They pay taxes on all proparty and income. The only taxes that the Amish do not pay are for Social Security because they will not take it when they reach that age, they are ineligible. They support their elderly on their own becuase they see it as their duty. Every other tax that the average american pays, they pay. They just pay it on a yearly basis rather than a bi-weekly or monthly basis.

      September 15, 2011 at 9:33 am |
    • logikflux

      @Chris, Wurd!

      September 15, 2011 at 9:34 am |
  3. rATL

    Whats sad is the poor person driving that rear-ends the buggy is the one who will be cited for the accident. I'm all for freedom of religion until it starts to affect those around you who don't practice religion. If you can't follow the rules of the state/country you live in then you may want to find somewhere else to reside.

    September 15, 2011 at 9:20 am |
  4. Lee

    In the name of freedom of religion, we can allow a "religious" group to publicly celebrate the deaths of US soldiers at their funerals; yet we can't come up with a different symbol for a peace-loving religion? Freedom of religion is freedom of religion – period.

    September 15, 2011 at 9:20 am |
    • Jean

      Different issue. The funeral protests are a freedom of speech issue, it's irrelevant that it happens to be a church doing the protesting.

      September 15, 2011 at 9:23 am |
    • Lee

      Still, the absurdity of it smacks you in the face – don't you think?

      September 15, 2011 at 9:24 am |
    • Jean

      I understand your point. I think there should be a way to require that church to voice their discontent elsewhere. However, that isn't a public safety issue the way this is.

      September 15, 2011 at 9:28 am |
    • Lee

      Yes, you're right, it's not a public safety issue. However, it's only a matter of changing a symbol shape or color. I don't think that's a lot to ask.

      September 15, 2011 at 9:35 am |
  5. anon

    So, the best analogy that I can think of is if South Carolina (where I live) passes a law that requires slow moving vehicles or any vehicle hauling something that sticks out of the back, to put a special orange pentagram on the back. I'm quite certain that the good church going folk here will refuse in large numbers because of the negative connotations to their religious beliefs. Just because the Amish belief is not part of the mainstream does not make it any less important to them.

    They are refusing not on the basis that they don't want to follow the law, but that the law if offensive to their religious belief. Being allowed to put an orange circle, square or other shape besides a triangle would take care of the issue.

    Writing regulations is always a sticky business because it is nearly impossible to foresee all the issues that it might create. When we legislate out any flexibility and hinder or remove the ability of those who enforce the laws to apply their better judgement, then we lose in the long run. There are any one of a hundred ways to make an Amish buggy properly visible by using something other than an orange triangle. If those that have prosecuted these men would stop to think what could be used instead of an orange triangle, then we would never have read such an article on CNN.

    September 15, 2011 at 9:19 am |
    • Jean

      I would agree with you except that the Amish also object to the use of bright colors and nothing else is as attention grabbing.

      September 15, 2011 at 9:24 am |
    • anon

      That's a fair point, Jean. But it also illustrates what I'm trying to say. I grew up next to Amish country in Ohio. There were some buggies with orange triangles, but most used reflective tape. This was certainly good enough for easily spotting a slow moving buggy at night (and like most 16 year olds on a country road at night, I was usually driving significantly faster than 15 mph). The point is that those who wrote the law didn't intend to have anyone jailed for not displaying a triangle. Instead let those involved in the prosecution come up with a compromise that all are happy with. This would also likely be far less expensive than the court proceedings, appeals, jailing, etc.

      September 15, 2011 at 9:30 am |
    • Jean

      Anon – I've driven through Lancaster Co PA a little, but not much. I was thinking that bright orange would be more attention grabbing than white reflective tape. I'm glad to hear from someone with more personal experience. Does the tape get your attention in daylight?

      September 15, 2011 at 9:37 am |
  6. Stuart

    They use red reflectors but will not use an orange triangle because the color is too "loud"?? It seems that if they use red they can use orange. This is a religion that makes no sense.

    September 15, 2011 at 9:18 am |
    • Jean

      The reflectors are small and no where near as "loud" a color. The characteristics that make them acceptable to the Amish are the same characteristics that make them less effective than the large bright orange triangle.

      September 15, 2011 at 9:26 am |
    • TeachTolerance

      Actually it does make sense, their problem is with the shape, they don't use the triangular symbol because to them it's holy, showing the holy trinity. They will use white reflective tape, which studies have shown is better, outlining the back of their entire buggy, they just don't want to use a color which did not occur naturally (neon orange) when their religion was started some 500 years ago. It's part of their faith.

      September 15, 2011 at 9:27 am |
    • Jean

      TeachTolerance: I'm a little confused. If they only use things that existed 500 years ago, how can they drive on an asphalt road surface?

      September 15, 2011 at 9:31 am |
  7. Pearl

    Tea party express isn't it their roads too...??? wow but also if they can not abide by the rules then they should NOT use the roads....a buggy path possibly?? But Kudos for standing up for your beliefs also!!! the world can be more than Black and White...there is a lot of grey in there!

    September 15, 2011 at 9:17 am |
  8. MikeAinFL

    They don't need to use the road if complying with traffic laws violates their cult rules. Nobody's forcing anything on them. Speed limits violate my freedom, but so far the judge hasn't seen it that way. Crackpots.

    September 15, 2011 at 9:17 am |
  9. Dan

    when are they going to have to start abiding by the same laws everyone else does? They use the religion card to get out of everything and to do whatever they want to do! the Amish religion is a cover to not pay taxes and hoard their money! Their society is built upon LOOPHOLES, not religion!!!!!!!!!!!

    September 15, 2011 at 9:17 am |
    • Jake

      You appear to know very little about the Amish.

      September 15, 2011 at 9:21 am |
  10. ELH

    The 'greater good' should trump individual desires. On the other hand, let them use the public highways without requiring the warning signs, but in turn, they must each post a $1,000,000 bond to indemnify anyone injured when they collide with the buggy.

    September 15, 2011 at 9:16 am |
    • Jean

      Then you have to create a bureaucracy to administrate it.

      September 15, 2011 at 9:20 am |
  11. Jenna

    The amish don't even pay into the idea of taxes so why do they continue to use public roads? Amish wheels destroy roads since they are bare metal. Go down any road commonly used by the amish and you will see what their "buggies" do to them.

    September 15, 2011 at 9:15 am |
    • Steve

      Good Point .. Get off our roads if you don't want to pay for them!! who do they think they are! Are they better then the rest of us.... Have their god fly them to their destination...

      September 15, 2011 at 9:22 am |
  12. Jean

    Religious freedom is not absolute. Religious beliefs are protected only as long as they don't hurt others or infringe on the rights of others. Kentucky feels the general public is put at risk here. Are they correct? I don't know. I do think that vehicles moving considerably slower than the usual speed for a given road can cause a problem and large, bright markings that scream for attention could avert an accident. That said, does it have to be a triangle? Maybe not. But it does need to be a loud bright color. I'm not sure reflective tape would be as effective.

    September 15, 2011 at 9:15 am |
  13. Ed

    I admire their ethics. They are refusing to use the triangle for religious reasons. They are fighting for the position legally through the courts as is allowed by law. When they lost they showed up for the sentence they were polite and respectful to the officers. They accepted their sentence. In short they have done everything an good citizen should do when they duisagree with a law. They didn't attack anyone, burn anything, or get in any fights. they follwed the rule of law while trying to change a law they don't like.

    on a logical note they should reconsider they're position on the triangle for obvious safety reasons.

    September 15, 2011 at 9:12 am |
  14. hmm

    I would like to see some comments from the Amish on this story.

    September 15, 2011 at 9:10 am |
    • Ed

      not likley I don't think they use computers

      September 15, 2011 at 9:13 am |
    • JMissal

      LOL....I gotta say, that was one of the best posts I've seen in a while. ;o)

      September 15, 2011 at 9:14 am |
    • Chartreuxe


      September 15, 2011 at 9:19 am |
  15. TheBaronZamboni

    Give to Ceasar what is Ceasar's

    September 15, 2011 at 9:10 am |
    • William Demuth

      And give the horses a break.

      If they wamma die fine, but the tragedy of an SUV filled with little kids having to watch a disembowled horse with the agony of broken back trying to stand, until it finally falls dead isn't worth the risk.

      The simpleset solution has ALWAYS been to ban the horses.

      Then only fools can die.

      September 15, 2011 at 9:15 am |
    • Jean


      September 15, 2011 at 9:16 am |
  16. EyezWideOpen

    why are they trying to change things for them for 100s of years? LEAVE THEM THE HECK ALONE!!

    September 15, 2011 at 9:09 am |
    • m

      This isn't about their religious freedom, values or anything else. The size of the buggy and horse make them a danger to motorized vehicles on the road. I have family that live in Amish communities that have no problem with safety issues including the use of headlights. If they want to die while on the road in a slow moving vehicle that is their choice. However, neither I nor anyone traveling with me should die because we cannot see them on a dark, unlight road at night coming around a curve or over a hill.

      There religious freedom and rules stop at the point they choose to be on a road used by motorized vehicles. It is a transportation issue and not a freedom of religion issue.

      September 15, 2011 at 9:22 am |
  17. ZweiStein

    Really stupid.

    September 15, 2011 at 9:08 am |
  18. David

    The Bible does not say anything about not being able to post sign markers. Please weigh the greater good for yourself. Posting the signs decreases accidents.

    September 15, 2011 at 9:08 am |
    • Frank Garrett

      Haven't you heard of Commandment 11: Thou shall not post orange triangles on thy buggy.

      September 15, 2011 at 9:18 am |
  19. Voice of Reason

    Tolerance and not dictatorship.

    Let the Amish come up with something that is not offensive to their belief and at the same time ensures safety.

    September 15, 2011 at 9:05 am |
    • Tea Party Express

      I agree, they should be banned from our road system.

      September 15, 2011 at 9:09 am |
    • David

      @Voice of Reason – I agree
      @Tea Party Express – Get a life.

      September 15, 2011 at 9:11 am |
    • The Straight Skinny

      You could have stopped after posting "Let the Amish come up with something that's not against their belief." and been spot on.

      September 15, 2011 at 9:15 am |
    • Sean

      Something like this?

      e Swartzentruber Amish use a high-quality reflective tape on their buggies, along with lanterns and red reflector lights.

      September 15, 2011 at 9:17 am |
  20. 4mercy

    There are a lot of cyclists that should be jail for the number of vehicular laws they break in one bike ride! Leave the Amish alone. They're using safety items. They are good people with no agenda other than their faith.

    September 15, 2011 at 9:04 am |
    • Peace


      September 15, 2011 at 9:09 am |
    • Tea Party Express

      "They are good people with no agenda other than their faith."

      So is Al Qaeda

      September 15, 2011 at 9:10 am |
    • hmm

      WOW, "Tea Party" – way to compare apples to kumquats....

      September 15, 2011 at 9:12 am |
    • boogietime

      I think all bicycles should be banned on roads with a speed limit above 25. All they do is slow cars down who need to get somewhere and by the way, the cars paid for the road through gas taxes. Any guess on how much gas tax the cyclist is paying?

      September 15, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.