Over the years, I’ve written pieces offending Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, Mormons, Protestants, Jews, Buddhists, and Scientologists. Leaving no toe unstepped on, today I turn to the Amish. We just observed the 30th anniversary of a major Supreme Court case involving preferential treatment for the Amish, and we now see them being cited as an example in the ongoing debate over preferential treatment for Catholics in the new healthcare law. So now is as good a time as there will ever be to talk about all the Amish legal privileges unavailable to the rest of us.
One of the few sensible points being made by the Catholic hierarchy in its effort to win special treatment under the new healthcare law is that the law gives other religious groups, like the Amish, special treatment. Therefore, it is discriminatory not to give special treatment to Catholics, who don't want to provide contraception in their healthcare plans. As Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops put it:
The government allows other religions to live out their beliefs. The Amish and Christian Scientists have a conscientious objection to health insurance, and so the law exempts them from buying it. The government acknowledges the right of these religious groups to live out their religious convictions in US society. Why are beliefs of Catholics and others dismissed?She has her facts straight, at least for the Amish. The Obama healthcare law passed by Congress has a section providing a “religious exemption” from the mandate that all individuals be covered by health insurance. The exemption doesn’t mention the Amish by name, but it cross-references Internal Revenue Code Section 1402(g), which allows self-employed persons who are “members of certain religious faiths” to opt out of paying Social Security and Medicare taxes. This privilege is available to a God believer who “is conscientiously opposed to acceptance of the benefits of any private or public insurance which makes payments in the event of death, disability, old-age, or retirement or makes payments toward the cost of, or provides services for, medical care (including the benefits of any insurance system established by the Social Security Act),” and who agrees to forego receiving any Social Security benefits.
What does Social Security have to do with religion, Amish or otherwise? According to the Supreme Court, in a case decided exactly 30 years ago last month, “The Amish believe that there is a religiously based obligation to provide for their fellow members the kind of assistance contemplated by the social security system … both payment and receipt of social security benefits is forbidden by the Amish faith.” As another author puts it, “to the Amish, insurance plans demonstrate a lack of faith in God’s plan.”
Despite this finding, the Court said it didn’t care what the Amish beliefs are: rules are rules, and Amish employers have to pay into the social security system for their employees just like other employers do. As the Court put it, “a comprehensive national social security system providing for voluntary participation would be almost a contradiction in terms.”
It’s misleading to say that the Amish are opposed to insurance. They are not. In fact, they pride themselves on taking care of members of their own community when old age or catastrophes prevent them from taking care of themselves. What they are really opposed to is paying for insurance where any of the benefits go to non-Amish, which is hard to distinguish from white people objecting to paying for insurance where the benefits might go to non-whites.
The Amish are also opposed to participating in a legal scheme with actual enforceable rights involved. Under their current special privileges, their bishops can excommunicate or “shun” anyone who doesn’t toe the line, which (among other things) means that person never gets any benefits when he or she needs them. Suppose an Amish fellow who opts out of Social Security dutifully pays to help others in his community for decades on end, then manages to tick off a local bishop, perhaps by expressing sympathy for humanists. Who takes care of his old age? Not Social Security, because he opted out. Not the Amish, because they don’t like him anymore. He’s just out of luck.
The Court’s opinion is worth quoting in the context of the current debate over giving Catholics a special exemption from the rule requiring commercial employers to provide contraceptive coverage:
When followers of a particular sect enter into commercial activity as a matter of choice, the limits they accept on their own conduct as a matter of conscience and faith are not to be superimposed on the statutory schemes which are binding on others in that activity. Granting an exemption from social security taxes to an employer operates to impose the employer's religious faith on the employees.Substitute “contraceptive coverage” for “social security taxes” in that paragraph, and it applies to today’s debate quite precisely.
Unfortunately, despite this Supreme Court case confirming that Amish Social Security exemptions are not legally required, Congress continues to provide such exemptions anyway, at least for the self-employed. You'll have to explain to me why, because I don’t understand it. Is it because the Amish have beards? Hippies had beards, and Congress never did anything for them. My guess is that the Amish have a lot of other more mainstream religions lobbying on their behalf, precisely so that they in turn can say “The Amish get special treatment – why don’t we?”, as the Catholics are doing today. This is the same reason why mainstream religions support cults that do things like use illegal drugs and kill innocent animals in sacrifice rituals.
Even more unfortunately, the Supreme Court has not always applied the same common sense to the Amish as it did in the Social Security case. Ten years previously, the Court allowed the Amish to exempt themselves from a Wisconsin law providing for compulsory education up to the age of 16. Justice Douglas pointed out in his dissent who the real losers are:
It is the future of the student, not the future of the parents, that is imperiled by today’s decision. If a parent keeps his child out of school beyond the grade school, then the child will be forever barred from entry into the new and amazing world of diversity that we have today. ... If he is harnessed to the Amish way of life by those in authority over him, and if his education is truncated, his entire life may be stunted and deformed.The rest of society suffers as well. What bright young Amish child might have discovered a cure for leukemia, or written a powerful novel, or become an effective teacher, if he or she had been allowed the same educational opportunities the state requires for others when it passed its compulsory education law? We’ll never know.
Social Security, health care, and education are big ticket items, but the Amish demand (and often receive) special privileges in small matters as well. They insist on using outhouses, even when their sewage pollutes their neighbors’ wells; they refuse to pay fines for doing so, because paying fines is against their religion. They refuse to turn over child molesters to the law, because they think their “shunning” treatment is all the punishment God demands. When Catholics do that, the world comes down on them like a ton of bricks; but the Amish are so darned cute, the press leaves them alone. The Amish insist on getting special exemptions from rules as mundane as building codes, including such ungodly ideas as smoke detectors; when they can’t get exemptions, they simply ignore the law. Some even refuse to put required triangular safety symbols on their slow-moving buggies, because the use of “worldly symbols” indicates a lack of trust in God, and because – I’m not making this up – the triangle symbolizes the Trinity, which they don’t believe in. So if you ever wreck your car smashing into an Amish buggy you didn’t see, remember that it’s your own fault, because you should have trusted more in God.
If adults, for religious or any other reason, want to live simply and forego the pleasures and pitfalls of the modern world, more power to them – so long as they let their children have the meaningful opportunity to decide for themselves how to live, and so long as they obey the same rules you and I do. In fact, seeking special exemptions is a peculiarly modern practice, perfected by an army of lawyers and K Street lobbyists. If the Amish truly want to live humbly, they should start following the law the way it's written, without putting themselves on any prima donna pedestal.