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Window pain

Culture | In a regulatory dispute over private homes, neither New York nor the Amish will give an inch and a half

Issue: "Daniel of the Year 2003," Dec. 13, 2003

THE AMISH KEEP UP THEIR RADICAL BRAND OF communal Christianity by rejecting modernity altogether. They don't drive cars or own telephones. They don't use electricity or anything that depends on electricity. They work their farms and build their buildings by hand, following the techniques and customs passed down for centuries, sticking to themselves and practicing their religious freedom.

But that was before New York state passed a new building code. The updated regulations require all new houses to have electricity and indoor plumbing. Blueprints for new construction must be submitted for state approval and signed by an architect or engineer. Details of the construction-such as the size of the windows-must conform to state regulations. And state bureaucrats have ruled that the Amish are out of compliance.

The issue was joined when building inspectors in Chautauqua, N.Y., found that a new house built by Amos Byler, who is not only Amish but the even more conservative Old Order Amish, had a bedroom window that measured 5 square feet. This was well within the old code's requirement of 4 square feet, but the new regulations call for all bedroom windows to measure at least 5.7 square feet. Mr. Byler would have to widen the window by 1.5 inches on each side. He wouldn't do it.

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The house was built just like all other Old Order Amish houses, going back to the 19th century. The whole point of being Old Order Amish is that you just don't change. Even zippers are considered too liberal. The Old Order fasten their clothes with hooks and eyes. When it comes to their houses, they allow running water, as long as it is gravity fed and cold water only. Lighting is by lamps that burn kerosene and not some fancier oil. And the windows are supposed to be 5 square feet.

Simply widening the windows by an inch and a half "sounds easy to someone who isn't Amish, but if you're Old Order Amish it isn't easy," local bishop Mose Byler told The New York Times. "If you break a tradition, where's the tradition? You aren't a faithful member."

Local authorities in Chautauqua cut the Amish some slack and issued the building permits. But now the town is in trouble with the state. The codes division of the New York Department of State says the community is in violation of state law and is threatening to audit the town's code enforcement.

The state says that it might compromise on plumbing and electrical codes, but the larger window size is sacrosanct. The state is requiring bigger windows for safety purposes, to assure firefighters access and to enable people inside to escape easier should there be a fire or other emergency.

Never mind that Chautauqua firefighters have said that the current windows are big enough for their purposes. Besides, the Amish community almost never makes use of firefighting services, even though they pay taxes, since they have no phones to dial 911 and since they are so isolated out in the country. Their buildings nearly always burn down before the firetrucks can get there. And since their 19th-century lifestyle has spared them the obesity epidemic that plagues other Americans, Amish folks have little problem fitting through their windows.

But state bureaucrats are just as unyielding as Amish farmers. Both sides follow their codes with a legalistic zeal, upholding every jot and tittle of their two respective sacred Orders. Neither side is willing to give an inch and a half.

Theologically, one might think that the Amish have a Romans 13 obligation to submit to the governing authorities. Since the Bible nowhere commands how big windows are supposed to be, this would seem to be an obvious area in which to render unto Caesar.

But the American republic guarantees religious liberty, and requiring the Amish to change their windows is like outlawing buggies and requiring them to drive cars, use cell phones, and buy clothes at the mall.

Moreover, the controversy is not just about religious liberty for the Amish but about the general liberty of every American. This is an issue about private property (upheld by the Bible in statutes such as "Thou shalt not steal"). If the Amish were operating a store, say, for the general public, some state building regulations might make sense, but their private residences should be their own business. And if their windows are too small, that is their risk and not the concern of the Nanny State.

It isn't just the Amish who have the right to build their windows any way they want. And it is not just the Amish who should resist the intrusion of government bureaucrats into their way of life. When it comes to personal liberty, give bureaucrats an inch (and a half) and they will take it all.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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