Using modern laws to keep Amish ways
Computer chips in cattle violate their beliefs, they say in rare plea
- By Tim Jones | Chicago Tribune correspondent
Article from chicagotribune.com
BLANCHARD, Mich. - It's not like Glen Mast to be confrontational or to draw attention to himself. He is Old Order Amish and is happy to tend his 35-acre farm, build furniture for his children and repair horse-drawn buggies for the Amish in his rural central Michigan community.
"I just want to be left alone," Mast says.
So it is extraordinary that Mast is a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit filed this month seeking to stop the government from tagging the ears of cattle with computer chips, chips that Mast and others say violate their religious freedom and may represent the biblical "mark of the beast," condemning those who comply to eternal damnation.
In Michigan and other states, the insular, Old World ways of the Amish are clashing with the technology-driven New World desire to track the movement of livestock in hopes of assuring the safety of the food chain from mad cow disease, pseudo rabies, tuberculosis and other maladies. Some Amish are selling their cattle rather than comply with the regulation. Some are refusing to register their farms with a government-run national database. And some are moving to other states, where enforcement of the federal regulation is not as rigorous.
"It's like we're being sucked into the modern world," said Robert Alexander, an Amish plaintiff in the suit who has put his 86-acre farm near the village of Coral up for sale and will move to Minnesota. The livestock tagging requirement is not the sole reason for his move, Alexander said, but it is a factor.
Apart from modern world
Historically, the Amish have quietly but fiercely fought for their separate and isolated status, winning, for instance, exemption from the military draft. They do not participate in Social Security, nor do they vote or run for political office. There are nearly a quarter-million Amish in the U.S., according to a recent study, and they are rapidly expanding their presence in rural areas of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Missouri, where their numbers have at least doubled since 1992.
This clash is in keeping with the long-held Amish belief that they should be separate and apart from the modern world, but the emerging public health issue has put the preservation of the Amish way against a compelling national concern.
Because the Amish are a growing segment of the dairy industry, that has put them in conflict with government efforts to regulate and protect the food chain. The concept behind the radio frequency chips is to follow the movement of millions of cattle and, when diseases occur, trace the possible origin. It is a logical, modern-world response to food safety concerns in a globalized food market.
In the decidedly small world of the Amish, though, the program is an incursion into their privacy and, for many, a violation of their religious freedom. Peter Zook, who farms in the northwestern Michigan community of Manton, sold his 30 head of dairy cattle last year rather than tag his small herd.
"Don't misunderstand — I'm not against the government, but it would be against the teachings of the Bible to do this," Zook said. "I don't want any part of it because those who partake of it would not be part of the Kingdom of God."
Many Amish interpret the New Testament book of Revelation as a warning that acceptance of technology—in this case the chips and the computers into which the information would be stored—amounts to worship of the Satan-possessed Antichrist. To many, the computer is the beast that will control their lives. There are disputes among the Amish about that interpretation, Alexander said, but there is broad agreement that embracing technology as a means to sell cattle is not in keeping with the teachings of the Bible.
The Virginia-based Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, along with Mast, Alexander and a handful of other plaintiffs, sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Michigan Department of Agriculture, seeking to block enforcement. In Wisconsin, studies have reported a reduction in the number of Amish-run dairy farms, because of resistance to the cattle-tagging. The Amish, who sell milk on the open market, make up about 5 percent of the state's dairy farmers.
Lawsuits are rare
Filing a lawsuit is an unusual response for the Amish, said Donald Kraybill, an expert on the Amish at the Young Center for Anabaptist & Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.
"The church teaching is that you shouldn't be involved in litigation" because it is seen as a use of force, Kraybill said.
How the dispute works itself out is anyone's guess. Wayne Wood, a dairy farmer and president of the Michigan Farm Bureau and a supporter of the cattle tagging law, said he sees no way the Amish could be exempted, despite their religious beliefs.
"I recognize that this could be a private property issue, but we have found that [tuberculosis] does not discriminate where it hits," Wood said.
The choice, Alexander said, has divided the Amish, who will have to decide whether to comply with the law, get out of the cattle business, or move to another state or country. Moving is part of the Amish legacy. As families grow, land can become scarce. That's a big reason the Amish are branching beyond their American ancestral homes of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. Land is cheaper and more available elsewhere.
The cattle-tagging law will, for some, add another incentive to move on. But Glen Mast says moving is not a long-term solution.
"The problem is, where do you go? Sooner or later, you're going to see this at the other end. And then what happens when they start tagging horses?" Mast said, shaking his head over a predicament he said scares him.
"This frightens me. They want to make us look like a violator," Mast said, adding, "I just want to be left alone."