The Commonwealth Court has ruled that connecting an Amish couple’s property to a municipal sewer system using an electric pump does not violate the couple’s religious freedom.
A split three-judge Commonwealth Court panel consisting of Judge Robert Simpson and Senior Judge Dan Pellegrini affirmed a Warren County trial court’s denial of the injunction requested by Joseph and Barbara Yoder. The Yoders asked the court to rule that they need not be required to connect to the sewer authority system through electric means. Judge Patricia A. McCullough filed a dissent.
The Yoders are Old Order Amish, meaning they eschew technology like automobiles and electricity. Currently the Yoders use an outhouse devoid of both running water and electricity at their Sugar Grove Township home, according to Simpson’s majority opinion.
The plaintiffs have been involved in two separate litigations over the sewer issue, including a class action over the constitutionality of the township’s mandatory connection ordinance, which provides that any property abutting Sugar Grove Area Sewer Authority pipes shall connect to the system. That class action was dismissed.
In the current case, the dispute centered on the means of connection: the electric pump. The trial court “weighed that moderate harm against the risk of using untested means of connection, noting the risk of malfunction of part of the sewer system posed a serious threat to public health,” and held that the Yoders did not offer any viable non-electric alternatives, according to Simpson’s opinion. The Yoders argued the trial court inappropriately placed the burden on them to find the least intrusive means of connection.
“Based on the record, the trial court determined owners did not meet all of the prerequisites for relief. Owners did not establish the injunction would not harm the public, or that the harm in denying the injunction outweighed the harm in granting it,” Simpson said.
“We defer to the trial court’s findings as to weighing the harms and the adverse effect of an injunction on the public health,” he continued. “After several years of litigation on multiple fronts, we recognize a strong interest in accomplishing the mandatory connection without further delay. Because there are apparently reasonable grounds for the trial court’s denial of preliminary injunctive relief, we affirm.”
In her dissent, McCullough said, “By denying owners’ preliminary injunction and so ordering them to connect to the authority’s system through the grinder pump, the trial court has ignored the import of the religious freedom protections owners are afforded and violated the intent of this court’s remand opinion that the authority employ the least intrusive means of connection, accounting for owners’ religious beliefs.”
Warren-based Bernard J. Hessley represents the Yoders and the Yoder Family Trust. Hessley said the majority’s ruling was wrong.
“I think it was a bad decision; the dissent is correct. In my view the trial court misapplied the Pennsylvania Religious Freedom Protection Act by placing the burden on the Yoders to establish what was the least restrictive means to achieve the ends of the so-called public interest in protecting the environment from pollution,” Hessley said.
Hessley said he was preparing an appeal to the state Supreme Court.
Andrea L. Stapleford of Stapleford & Byham in Warren represents the sewer authority and did not return a call seeking comment.