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Morristown, Amish settle building code dispute

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MORRISTOWN — The town of Morristown has dropped charges of building code violations against local Amish communities to settle a First Amendment complaint.

Both parties reached a compromise, dismissing all criminal charges against the Amish and stating that some traditional building practices already meet the code, and others would be changed slightly to appease the town’s rules, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization representing the Amish in the case.

“The Amish have agreed to use practices that are consistent with their faith and the building code,” Becket Fund spokeswoman Emily Hardman said. “The town has agreed to recognize their traditional practices as being safe, and consistent with the building code.”

No money will change hands in the agreement, said Morristown’s legal counsel, Gregg T. Johnson from Lemire Johnson LLC of Malta.

In 2006, Morristown began ticketing Amish men who violated local statutes requiring submission of schematics before a building permit was issued by refusing to abide by rules requiring smoke detectors, hurricane tie-downs and frostproof foundations in their designs.

The conservative Swartzentruber Amish community complained that the requirements violated their religious codes, filing a 2009 complaint in U.S. District Court in Plattsburgh on the advice of the Becket Fund, which became involved after reading about the dispute.

Under the agreement, the Amish will have smoke detectors installed in their homes during inspections, build larger windows for easier exit during emergencies and use an approved method of securing their home’s roof. There is no method to ensure Amish home builders keep their smoke detectors installed and in working order, however.

“It places the same standards on the Amish that are on any other home,” Mr. Johnson said. “As you know, it is up to the homeowner to keep those in place, keep them operable. There is no difference in treatment.”

Morristown will recognize that Amish cellar construction meets the town’s requirement for frost-free foundations.

Mr. Johnson and Ms. Hardman said their clients were pleased with the agreement.

Ms. Hardman said as municipal code enforcement improves, conflict with strict religious tenets, like those of the Swartzentruber Amish, is on the rise.

“They have increased over the past few years, but we think this settlement shows that towns and religious communities can work together to satisfy everyone,” she said.

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