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Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch visited a Minnesota county on Friday for attempting to force an Amish community to install septic systems in their homes against their religious beliefs, citing the court’s recent high-profile decision in a religious liberty case as a major precedent.
Gorsuch made the comments in a statement regarding Mast v. Fillmore County.
The court reversed and remanded the previous ruling against the Amish community in this case, saying lower courts should give special consideration to Fulton v. Philadelphia, which the judges decided last month. In that case, the court unanimously ruled that Philadelphia could not exclude a Catholic adoption agency from its foster program simply because the agency does not place children with same-sex couples.
In Mast, Fillmore County and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency sought to use environmental regulations to force a Swartzentruber Amish community to install septic tanks for the disposal of its gray water – that is, i.e. water after it has been used for bathing, washing clothes or in sinks.
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The Swartzentruber community, one of the most conservative Amish groups in the United States, said they could not do so in accordance with their religious beliefs. They asked for an exception, offering instead to install ponds filled with wood chips to filter their gray water, which is common practice in much of the United States.
But the county and state did not accept this and sued the Amish in an attempt to force them to comply through “threats of retaliation and inspections of their homes and farms” and attacks on “the sincerity of the Amish faith”.
“Instead…devising a solution that honored the Amish faith, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency filed an administrative lawsuit against 23 Amish families in Fillmore County demanding the installation of modern septic systems. subject to criminal penalties and civil fines,” Gorsuch wrote.
He added that in the final stages of the litigation, the county sought an order that would evict the Amish families from “their homes, removing all of their possessions and declaring their homes uninhabitable if the Amish did not install septic tanks within six months. “.
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“The county even unsuccessfully sought a court order allowing its officers to inspect the interior of Amish homes as part of an investigation into ‘types of modern technology and materials they might be using,'” Gorsuch added. “Apparently this was part of an effort to amass ‘evidence’ to ‘attack the sincerity of [the Amish’s] religious beliefs.'”
Gorsuch said Fulton should be a major consideration in how the lower courts move forward on this case now that she has brought it down to this level.
“Fulton makes it clear that the county and lower courts misunderstood [the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act’s] requests,” Gorsuch wrote.
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“As Fulton said, the government must offer a ‘compelling reason why it has a vested interest in denying an exception to [a religious claimant] doing [exceptions] available to others,” Gorsuch said. “Given this, the county in this case bore the burden of presenting a ‘compelling reason why’ it cannot offer the Amish this same alternative.”