Pennsylvania Superior Court Rules: Amish Can Stick With Reflective Tape on Buggies

October 21, 2003 12:00 am

ACLU Affiliate
ACLU of Pennsylvania
Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States


PITTSBURGH — The required display of orange triangles on their horse-drawn buggies is a thing of the past for Pennsylvania’s Swartzentruber Amish after a panel of three Pennsylvania Superior Court judges ruled 2-1 today that the triangle is no longer the only legal means of calling attention to their buggies.

“We are delighted that the Superior Court upheld Pennsylvania’s venerable historic tradition of respecting the rights of religious minorities,” said Witold Walczak, the Pittsburgh ACLU’s legal director. “This is an important victory not only for the Swartzentrubers, but for all people who value religious liberty.”

The decision, which puts Pennsylvania in line with other states to have addressed the issue, allows the Swartzentrubers buggies to be outlined with a retroreflective tape that the Swartzentrubers find less offensive to their religious beliefs, but that previously had earned them traffic tickets – and even jail time.

The Swartzentrubers object to both the color and the triangular shape of the emblem Pennsylvania requires them to display. Nine other states already accommodate the religious beliefs of conservative Amish groups by allowing the use of retroreflective tape instead of triangles.

But before today’s ruling, more than 20 of the 80 members of the Swartzentruber Amish community who live in the Ebensburg-Nicktown area of Cambria County had been fined — and one had been jailed — for refusing to affix the triangles to their buggies and carriages.

Donna Doblick, a partner in the Pittsburgh office of Reed Smith LLP, worked as a volunteer attorney with the ACLU of Western Pennsylvania to represent the Swartzentrubers in challenging the law. Doblick argued that the Swartzentrubers view the use of the triangles as an affront to God and emphasized the undisputed expert testimony that the retroreflective strips actually improve buggy visibility at night better than the triangles. She characterized the Superior Court’s ruling as a victory for all people who cherish their constitutional rights of religious freedom.

“The orange triangles are offensive to the deeply held religious convictions of the Swartzentrubers,” said Doblick. “The Swartzentrubers are law abiding citizens, but they cannot in good conscience display colors and symbols that are anathema to their religious beliefs.””

The Swartzentrubers lost their initial court fight in June 2002, when Cambria County Judge Timothy Creany ruled that the triangles are the only way to safely mark Amish buggies in Pennsylvania.

A turning point in the protracted legal battle came last month, when a government lawyer conceded during the Superior Court argument that the Commonwealth had not proven the absence of alternatives that would be less offensive to the Swartzentrubers’ religious beliefs.

The Swartzentrubers, one of the most conservative Amish groups in America, migrated to rural Cambria County from Ohio about five years ago. Like other Amish, they reject ornamentation in dress or in their belongings and they avoid technological advances and conveniences. The Swartzentrubers had discussed moving back to Ohio — one of the states that allows them to use retroreflective tape on their buggies — if the case were not ultimately decided in their favor.

The decision in the case is available online at /node/35379.

By completing this form, I agree to receive occasional emails per the terms of the ACLU’s privacy policy.

The latest in National Security

ACLU's Vision

The American Civil Liberties Union is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States of America.

Learn More About National Security

National Security issue image

The ACLU’s National Security Project is dedicated to ensuring that U.S. national security policies and practices are consistent with the Constitution, civil liberties, and human rights.