CANTON — An international law firm plans to sue the town of Morristown over alleged religious discrimination against the Amish.
Lori H. Windham, an attorney for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty of Washington, D.C., said Friday that a federal lawsuit against the town and its code enforcement officer will be filed shortly in U.S. District Court Northern District of New York. The firm alleges that Amish families' religious beliefs are being violated by the town's forcing them to install smoke detectors in their homes, submit engineering plans and allow home inspections.
"We're hopeful that this will set a precedent nationally," Ms. Windham said.
Eleven Amish men are charged in Morristown with failure to comply with building codes. Those cases have been delayed for more than a year for various reasons, including a lengthy search for an interpreter.
The Becket Fund describes itself as being "dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions."
The international law firm includes Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, and former U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr on its board of advisers. It intervened at the request of the St. Lawrence County Assistant Public Defender Steven G. Ballan.
The nonprofit faxed a five-page letter in March to town officials that echoes many of the points Mr. Ballan has argued, among them that the town is selectively enforcing the law against the Amish to effectively force them from the community even though the municipality stands no loss if the conservative religious group is left alone.
Town Council members said previously that they must enforce building codes because turning a blind eye to the Amish will create unfair enforcement. Building codes are set by state law but enforced by towns, villages and cities.
Ms. Windham said she wasn't sure whether the town of Hammond or New York state, which sets standards on building codes, would be named in the lawsuit. Hammond is suing to force two Amish men to obtain building permits.
A court hearing to force them to comply has been delayed again.
Joseph J. Swartzentruber and Henry D. Mast, Hammond, appeared Friday in state Supreme Court, but the case was pushed back to Jan. 9. The delay will allow for written arguments to be submitted.
The men applied for permits, but were denied because they refused to install smoke alarms or have plans approved by an engineer. Charges against the men in Hammond Town Court were tossed in May because of paperwork errors.
"Should something happen, the town could be held liable," Hammond town attorney Frederick E. Paddock said in court.
Ms. Windham argued on behalf of the two men. She contended that tossing the men and their 12 children out of their homes wasn't warranted, especially with winter just around the corner.