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Morristown seeks help in Amish permits case

TIMES STAFF WRITER
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MORRISTOWN — The town is making a statewide appeal for help in prosecuting Amish men for building homes without permits.

Ten members of the conservative religious group have been charged in the clash between building codes and religious tenets that shun modernization. Town councilors sent a letter Saturday to newspapers to pressure legislators and the state Department of State to provide financial and technical help in dealing with the pending trials.

"Everyone is watching, but that's all they're doing is watching," said W. Howard Warren, deputy supervisor. "It seems to be our personal battle and no one wants to say anything or advise."

The ordeal began in July 2006, when Andy Miller, Dumont Road, was charged with building a house without a permit. His case was repeatedly delayed because he did not have an attorney, and an agreement to issue a permit was reached in January 2007. The town eventually declined, however, because Mr. Miller would not allow code enforcement officer L. Kay Davis to inspect his home, as agreed upon.

His case restarted in the summer, by which time five others from the conservative Swartzentruber sect of the simple agricultural religion were charged.

Their cases were delayed four months while the court searched for someone who could translate legal documents into Pennsylvania Dutch, the antiquated form of German used by the men. That task was taxing because town Judge James T. Phillips Jr. and court staff had to lead the search after the state Office of Court Administration did not have anyone available.

Judge Phillips is reviewing motions by a court-appointed attorney to dismiss the charges based on religious persecution and technicalities.

"We feel the state is sitting back and watching our situation as a test case on this issue, which will have statewide ramifications," the letter says.

Building codes are established by state laws and enforced on the town, village or city level.

"It's our town that's incurring all the legal costs to enforce a state law," Supervisor Frank L. Putman said.

Town officials could not determine Monday how much the proceedings have cost. Town Clerk David J. Murray recalled seeing a $4,000 voucher for January legal fees. Councilors budgeted $8,000 for town attorney Andrew W. Silver's services this year.

"We can't blink," Mr. Putman said. "There's a lot of contractors in this town and other towns watching and saying, 'If an exception is made here, are we going to follow building codes?'"

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