Kentucky Amish Lose Buggy Exemption Case

Amish CarriageThe Kentucky Supreme Court has upheld convictions of Amish men who faced legal trouble for refusing to place triangular orange safety symbols on the back of their buggies.  Kentucky law requires the symbols be placed on the back of all slow moving vehicles, but the Amish refused based on their religious beliefs.

The Opinion stated that the law requiring the safety symbols did not violate the religious freedom of the Amish, and that the individuals who refused to affix them to their buggies were properly punished for their actions.  The Amish men had proposed to use a reflective gray surface instead of orange, however, a lower court had previously found that the orange was superior.  While Kentucky law has since changed to allow the horse drawn vehicles to use a strip of orange reflective tape instead of the larger safety symbol, the point remains that the law made in the interest of road safety did not infringe on religious beliefs.

The First Amendment Freedom of Religion

The Amish had challenged the law on Constitutional grounds, saying it violated the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedoms.  The law protecting freedom of religion stems from the First Amendment phrase, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” which has been interpreted by a number of Supreme Court decisions and Federal Laws. 

This language in the Constitution contains two important clauses: the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise clause, and both have been a critical part of American law throughout the country’s history.  The Establishment Clause prevents the government from imposing a set of religious beliefs, and the Free Exercise Clause protects religions from targeted restrictions.  While both are fascinating subjects, the Kentucky Amish case only deals with the Free Exercise Clause.

Understanding the Free Exercise Clause

What the Free Exercise Clause means today differs between State and Federal law.  Federal law is guided by the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA) which forbids any law from having an “undue burden” on a religion unless the government has a serious, or “compelling,” interest in passing the law.  Essentially this makes it very difficult for any law that infringes on religion to exist because such a law will be unconstitutional.  According to the RFRA, it does not matter if a law is neutral or effects non-religious entities just as severely as it does religious ones.  The Supreme Court determined that this law did not apply to the individual states, but a handful of states have adopted identical legislation.

For States that have not passed a version of the RFRA, the Supreme Court has set a standard that allows for otherwise neutral laws to effect religious practices.  If a state passes a law that applies to all parties equally, then it will satisfy the Free Exercise Clause even if there is an unintended negative effect on the practice of a particular religion.  Any law that infringes on the rights of everyone, not just a particular religion, can be Unconstitutional, but the key Free Exercise issue is whether or not the law effects every group equally.

In the case of the Kentucky Amish who lost their case against the orange safety symbols, the law was designed to effect every vehicle equally.  Even though the law has since changed to allow a less noticeable sign, the initial law applied to everyone and was thus not in violation of the Free Exercise Clause even though the Amish claimed it violated their religious practices. 

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