The Amish isolate themselves, and their children, from what they see as an ungodly modern world. But that doesn't mean they can break child labor laws, federal officials say.
The Amish have long had an exemption allowing their children to leave school at 14 — two years earlier than other children — and work full-time on the farm, in accordance with their religious beliefs.
But another part of the traditional Amish way of life — apprenticeships in sawmills and woodshops — has come up against federal laws barring teen-agers from working in dangerous occupations.
With farmland becoming scarce and expensive, and more and more Amish turning to woodworking as a livelihood, the problem is becoming worse.
The Department of Labor has in recent years fined Amish-owned sawmills in Pennsylvania, and some non-Amish businesses employing Amish children, as much as $10,000 for violating federal laws that prohibit children under 16 from working in manufacturing operations like sawmills, and children under 18 from working in other occupations deemed hazardous.
Amish tradesmen argue that the laws discriminate against their religious beliefs and, in a case that pits old world religious freedom against socially driven labor law, they have taken their argument to Washington.
Amish Elders Go to Washington
The Amish way of life teaches children to "learn by doing" — not in school but on the family farm or in the woodshop. They base the belief on a passage from the Bible, as Amish elder Chris Blank told a Senate hearing in May.
"Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it," Blank told members of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on labor, quoting Proverbs 22:6. Blank is chairman of the Old Order Amish Steering Committee, which handles government affairs for Amish communities.
"You try to teach them learning by doing, and that is the way of the Lord," said John Byler, a sawmill owner from Harrisville, Pa., who was fined $3,000 four years ago for employing teen-agers.
Labor Department official Thomas Markey presented the government's view of the woodworking industry: "Young workers' inexperience, smaller size, immaturity, and lack of training make employment in industry even more dangerous."
Learn By Doing
In a 1972 ruling granting the exemption for farm work, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the "learn by doing" approach is inherent to Amish religious beliefs, and thus supercedes labor law. The Amish argue that the decision should be extended to work in sawmills and woodshops.
Currently, even tasks like working a cash register, sweeping woodchips or piling wood are illegal if the child is in the same structure as the sawmill equipment. Amish elders promise children would not be forced to operate heavy machinery, but Labor officials see no way to enforce the distinction and have asked Congress for a legislative remedy to the controversy.
The House has twice passed legislation that would exempt Amish children from labor laws keeping them out of the woodworking industry, but both times the bills have lost steam in the Senate.
Last week, Sen. Arlen Specter and Rep. Joe Pitts, both Republicans from Pennsylvania, which has a high concentration of Amish, introduced simultaneous bills to amend labor law to allow Amish apprenticeships even in businesses where heavy machinery is present.
Specter chaired the subcommittee that held the hearing in May, but lost the chairmanship when the Democrats gained control of the Senate. The new chairman, Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., has promised to hold another hearing, but his official stance is skeptical. "We have serious concerns about young workers in the workplace," said Jim Manley, Kennedy's press secretary.