Stephen Lance Dennee/Associated Press
MAYFIELD, Ky. – A group of Amish men were sent to jail in western Kentucky on Thursday for refusing to pay fines for breaking a state highway law that requires their horse-drawn buggies to be marked with orange reflective triangles.
The men have a religious objection to the bright orange signs, which they say are flashy and conflict with their pledge to live low-key and religious lives.
Ananias Byler, the first of 10 Amish men who appeared in Graves County District Court on Thursday, was sentenced to 10 days in jail. The men were jailed for being found in contempt of court for refusing to pay fines. Byler told Judge Deborah Crooks on Thursday that he would not pay the $489 he owes.
“I totally understand your objection,” the judge told Byler. “But you’re in violation, and it’s not up to me to change the law. It doesn’t really matter what I think about any of this.”
The men belong to a conservative breakaway group of Amish known as Swartzentruber. They live simply with no electricity, plumbing or appliances. But in recent years they have been running afoul of the law here for refusing to use the triangles on their buggies, and some were sent to jail last year.
The Amish men, wearing long dark coats on a snowy day in Mayfield, removed their black wide-brimmed hats before entering the courtroom. They sat quietly until their names were called.
Jacob Gingerich said he and the other men will continue to refuse to pay the fines. Gingerich owed more than $600 and was sentenced to 13 days in jail Thursday.
“We’re just not going to pay,” Gingerich, a farmer with 12 children, said before the court appearance.
Their sentences ranged from three to 13 days for fines ranging from $153 to $627. Serving the jail time will clear their fines off the books at a rate of about $50 a day.
County Jailer Randy Haley said the men were staying together Thursday in a large holding cell. They will wear special-dyed jail uniforms because they object to the orange jumpsuits, he said. The men also asked that they not be submitted to mug shots, and Haley said he agreed.
The issue over the orange triangles has come up before in other states with Amish populations. Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania have allowed exemptions for the Swartzentrubers, and courts in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan have sided with them.
But police and prosecutors in Kentucky say the orange triangles are the law because they help motorists see the buggies and avoid collisions.
“You get behind one of the buggies at night, you can’t see it,” Graves County Sheriff DeWayne Redmon said. “We’re citing them for their own safety as well as the safety of others.”
Gingerich and two other Amish men, with help from the Kentucky chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, have sued over the state highway law, saying it infringes on their religious freedom. The Kentucky Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case later this year after the state appeals court rejected the Amish men’s argument in June.
Gingerich said Thursday that he wished the judge would have waited for the state Supreme Court to hear the case before throwing the men in jail.
Kentucky lawmakers are considering changes to the highway law to allow the Amish to use gray reflective tape instead of the orange triangles.
Of Kentucky’s 120 counties, Graves County has recorded the most violations for failure to use the orange triangles in the last five years, according to data obtained by The Associated Press. The county has recorded 57 of a total of 89 violations statewide since 2007.