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Oswegatchie sues Amish family for avoiding housing permit

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CANTON — A $21,000 lawsuit filed Monday against an Amish family has sparked debate over whether New York can force the Amish to purchase engineer-stamped plans before building a house.

In a state Supreme Court filing, the town of Oswegatchie accuses Samuel H. and Delilah S. Miller, of 1008 Bishop Road, Heuvelton, of refusing to obtain the permit while knowing it was required,

According to court documents, the Millers constructed an 1,800-square-foot home in January and told Code Enforcement Officer Timothy C. Tuttle on Feb. 7 that they weren’t getting a stamped engineering plan.

Mr. Tuttle said these plans cost about $150.

Because of the Millers’ failure to comply, the town of Oswegatchie is seeking a $350-per-day fine from Feb. 7 to April 7. They are also asking that the Millers continue to pay a $350 fine every day until the permits are received. Until that point, the town is requesting an injunction to keep the Millers from living in the house.

Assistant Public Defender Steven G. Ballan, who has represented the Amish in similar cases and has reviewed the lawsuit, says the town’s actions are “ridiculous.”

Mr. Ballan said a similar 2009 case from Morristown is slowly making its way through the federal courts system, The Morristown case was filed in January 2009 by 13 Amish men against the town of Morristown for enforcing New York building permit laws. The Amish are represented by attorneys from the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, Washington, D.C.

Since then, Mr. Ballan said, local judges have declined to rule on a case until the federal courts make their ruling.

“This is a waste of money,” he said. “If I lived in Oswegatchie, I would be angry.”

Mr. Tuttle, who has been at his post for 17 years, said a ruling must be made to set a precedent.

“This needs to be figured out,” he said.

Mr. Tuttle said he doesn’t agree that the Amish are exercising religious freedom. In his view, they are refusing to change with the times.

“This is a really small group of Amish,” he said. “It is not all of them doing this.”

He said he has great working relationship with many of the Amish and most obey this law.

“These are the rules whether you’re Amish or not,” he said.

Mr. Ballan said the U.S. Constitution trumps New York’s building law.

He said part of the way Amish live is to shun new technology.

“This law requires people to use new technology,” he said.

Oswegatchie town Attorney Charles B. Nash of Canton did not return a phone call seeking comment Monday afternoon.

SUNY Potsdam Professor Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, considered an expert on Amish culture, said requiring the Amish to get engineer-stamped plans is a violation of their First Amendment right of religious protection.

She said each group of Amish has its own congregation and its own rules and some are more strict than others.

“This goes against their religious beliefs,” she said. “The Amish don’t have to change.”

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