Thursday, November 18, 2010

Amish and the Law

When I was doing the research for my latest book, MURDER IN PLAIN SIGHT, which will be out from HQN Books the end of November, I spent a good bit of time sorting out what the society in general believes about the Amish reaction to the law from the truth. In my story, an Amish teenager is accused of the murder of a young woman with whom he was apparently involved. The protagonist is a female attorney from Philadelphia who is brought in to defend him. Amish relationship with the law is a big part of the story, and I needed to know how that would play out from the Amish perspective, so that I could attempt to portray the different reactions.

For the Amish, living separate from the world generally means that while they are very law-abiding themselves, they are reluctant to turn to the law for help. In some instances, outside groups have helped to obtain lawyers to represent the Amish when their beliefs and practices run afoul of government regulations, as in the celebrated school disputes of the 1950s, which went all the way to the Supreme Court. In more recent years, this sort of dispute with the government has resurfaced over requirements to have photo IDs, since the Amish object on religious grounds to having their photographs taken. This controversy boiled up recently in Missouri, with numbers of Old Order Mennonites planning to move to another state if they were required to do so.

The Amish do use attorneys' services to draw up wills, handle real estate transactions, set up business partnerships, etc., but they are unwilling, or at least reluctant, to use the legal system to protect their rights. Unfortunately, this has led to a number of situations in which others have bilked Amish individuals or businesses, knowing that the Amish are unlikely to sue them.

For much the same reason, the Amish in some areas have been the victims of thefts, home break-ins, and vandalism. It may be that the perpetrators are drawn to people they believe will not fight back. In one recent incident, someone had been repeatedly breaking in Amish businesses, apparently feeling that he could get away with it more easily than tackling an English business. One business owner, frustrated at being robbed several times, hid an infrared hunting camera in his place of business, catching the suspect on tape. While the Amish do not believe in taking photos of themselves, their beliefs don't prevent them from taking a picture of someone else, especially if it helps to catch a thief!

Local police in some heavily Amish areas have begun cooperating more and more with the Amish to deal with and prevent problems. They will speak at meetings to educate parents about drug use, for instance. Some meet regularly with the bishops in their area to discuss any issues or problems they see, particularly with young people, so that the church can actively help to address them. In respect to the law, as in so many other aspects of modern culture, it seems the Amish balance on a constantly shifting line to maintain their traditional faith in a modern world.

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