Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court sent a case concerning a group of Minnesota Amish back to the state’s Court of Appeals. The group, known as the Swartzentruber Amish, sued southeast Minnesota’s Fillmore County over its requirement that most homes have modern septic systems to deal with greywater, which is water used for things like baths, dishes and other cleaning.
Brian Lipford, the attorney representing the Swartzentruber Amish in the case, says the group believes that the septic requirement violates their religious freedom.
The Supreme Court’s ruling came in the wake of another religious freedom case — that one about a Philadelphia-based Catholic foster care agency — with both cases hinging on the application of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which protects the religious use of land.
While the case is just the latest of several going back to the 1970s that have focused on how the Amish relate to their larger communities in the United States, it also served to highlight the growing presence of Amish in different parts of Minnesota.
The Amish are now one of the fastest growing religious groups in the United States, said Edsel Burdge, a researcher at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania — growth that has been felt in several parts of Minnesota. Though their overall numbers remain small — there are a little fewer than 5,000 Amish in Minnesota today — the population in the state has grown by more than 230 percent over the last 20 years, according to data gathered by the Young Center.
Immigrating mainly from Switzerland and Germany, the Amish’s presence in America goes back to the 1700s. Part of the Anabaptist movement — a radical element of the Protestant Reformation — the Amish are closely related to Mennonites, with both practicing adult baptism and both believing that religion should be completely separate from state interference.
Though the Amish tend to be more conservative than Mennonites — especially when it comes to the use of technology — their opinions on modern practices and “worldly” goods can vary widely depending on each settlements’ beliefs and regulations. Those settlements, groups of like-minded Amish that contain a number of individual families, function like small towns or villages, growing and splitting off into many settlements over time.
After originally settling in the eastern U.S., the Amish moved westward as communities grew, especially during the second half of the 20th century. Minnesota’s first recorded Amish population arrived in 1973 in Todd County, about 151 miles northwest of the Twin Cities.
In recent decades, the Amish have continued to grow and spread, in part due to their practice of having large families but also because of high retention rates; the Young Center estimates that 85 percent of Amish youth eventually join the church. “It’s not uncommon for them to have 10 to 12 children, and they grow up and get married,” said Sheila Craig, president of the Preston Historical Society in Fillmore County, home to several Amish settlements.
When Amish settlements grow to be larger than about 40 families, they split off to create new settlements, according to research done by Cory Anderson, a rural sociologist at Pennsylvania State University, while a report by David Luthy, an Amish historian, found that new Amish settlements are created every three weeks in the United States.
The Amish in Minnesota
That growth rate means the Amish tend to run out of space quickly, and the spread westward has been driven by the need for affordable farmland — one of the reasons they ended up in Minnesota. “They would choose our smaller, old farms that nobody wanted anymore,” said Craig. “The Amish would come and use that spot because it would have a well and they need the water [but] they don’t use electricity.”
Minnesota’s Amish settlements tend to be more conservative than Amish who live farther east when it comes to the use of so-called “worldly goods,” but views about the use of technology also vary widely among communities.
Amish settlements look to church leaders to decide what can and can not be used. While some communities completely ban things like computers and cellphones, others are fine with members having a presence on social media platforms. Though now deleted, the TikTok account of Mervin Kinsinger, a 25-year-old Amish man from Pennsylvania, once had 57,000 followers, who were treated to Kinsinger showing off his horse, buggy and karaoke skills. In one TikTok, he could be seen singing Weird Al Yankovic’s song “Amish Paradise” to a cheering crowd.
In traveling to settlements across the U.S. for his research, Anderson said his gets very different reactions as an outsider, depending on a community’s beliefs and culture. “I get a very warm reception that’s like, ‘Who’s this? Come on in, sit down! Can you stay a while? Talk for a while? Do you have a place to sleep? Why don’t pull out a bench and put some pillows on, you can sleep in the living room tonight,’” he said. “Then I get other ones where people will just flat out ignore me.”
The group at the center of the case against Fillmore County, the Swartzentruber Amish, tend to use as little technology as they can. “They’re very old fashioned,” Burdge said. “They are much more restrictive in technology kinds of things than some other Amish would be.”
The regulation of vehicle use is another point of contention within Amish settlements. “Amish churches ended up rejecting ownership and operation of automobiles,” said Anderson. “There are a few churches that allow ownership of automobiles, but you can’t drive it. So they actually hire people to drive their vehicles. Then there’s another Amish church where they’re allowed to drive it as long as they don’t own it.”
Horse and buggy vehicles remain the main mode of transportation for Amish in Minnesota, though the Amish in Fillmore County who work construction jobs are known to hire drivers when they need to transport materials or get to a site quickly.
But while the Amish may live vastly different lives from their “English” neighbors, they are often very much part of their communities. “They interact with us,” said Craig. “They come into the grocery store and buy what they need. They go to the feed store and they work closely with the lumberyards.”