Feds Cite Amish For Child Labor Violations

ByABC News
July 30, 2001, 11:23 AM

W A S H I N G T O N, Aug. 1 -- 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.