Wednesday evening was the special meeting to discuss the matter of liability insurance and the Amish. The town of Locke, New York (population 1,900), is only about 15 minutes from my house. As I headed south into town, I could see a lot of cars were parked along the normally-empty street. I pulled over quite a distance from the Town Hall building and parked the car. My pastor, Dale Weed, just happened to be right behind me and we walked down the sidewalk together.
As we got to the meeting place, a couple from our church, George and Sandy, were standing in front of a cameraman with a light shining on them and speaking with a Syracuse NY television news reporter. I walked to the back of the volunteer fire department building, which is where the town hall is located, and it was overflowing with people. So they decided to move the fire trucks out of the garage and have the meeting there.
As people were milling around, setting up folding chairs in the garage, I saw a lot of familiar faces in the crowd. many were from my church. In addition to Pastor Weed, there were ten other people from our congregation in attendance. I introduced myself to Dave Tobin, the Post Standard reporter who had written the newspaper article that was the genesis of the meeting. I reminded him that he had written an article about my Whizbang Chicken Plucker a couple of years back. I thanked him for writing the article about the plight of the Amish families in Locke. Then I introduced him to Pastor Weed.
There were half a dozen Amish men in the room. They were sitting together on one side. Lifetime Locke resident, Tom Hewitt, and his wife were sitting with them. The Hewitts are close friends with the Amish and attend my church. I noticed Pastor Weed speaking with someone I didn’t know and realized it must be the attorney he had hired. The meeting was delayed because the town’s attorney was late getting there. I had a chance to talk with a few people and discovered that, thankfully, they were also there to support the Amish.
The town’s attorney showed up a half hour late. He spoke at length about the issue of insurance and the Amish. Afterward, when the meeting was opened up for comments from the audience, several hands went into the air. People were not going to be hesitant or bashful about speaking their mind. Here are some excerpts from what Dave Tobin reported in the Post Standard the next morning:
Locke town officials got an earful Wednesday night: about liability insurance, government over-regulation, freedom of the marketplace and freedom of religion. At the heart of it all were their new neighbors, the Amish.
More than 100 people showed up at a special town meeting about liability insurance. Because the town meeting room was too small, officials moved the meeting to the adjoining fire department garage, after the trucks were moved out.
The informational meeting—no decision was made—Wednesday was called because the town requires liability insurance for contractors seeking building permits. Town officials recently discovered that neither the town or the state has a law requiring liability insurance for building permits.
However, Locke’s liability insurance requirement has made it impossible for Amish contractors to build things in Locke, because the Amish don’t get insurance. Reliance on insurance erodes community trust and support of each other, the Amish maintain.
Andrew Fusco, town attorney,… recommended the Locke Town Board pass a law requiring liability insurance to protect homeowners from being sued by contractors if they are hurt on a job. He said Locke would be the first town in New York to do so.
Several people who spoke praised the Amish for their ethics, their hard work, their trustworthiness. Kathy Burgman, of Locke, asked the town board members that, if they knew that making a requirement to get insurance violated Amish principles, wouldn’t the requirement be discriminatory?
There were frequent cheers and applause as people spoke against Fusco’s proposed law. But a standing ovation was reserved for Harvey Byler, an Amish spokesman.
“Our wish is to live here in peace,” he said. “We do not wish to offend anybody, and if we have offended anybody please accept our apologies. We will try to be law-abiding citizens, providing you do not press or overstep or overrule our religious rights.”
A newspaper article can only hint at the drama that unfolded in that garage Wednesday night. So many caring and well-meaning people in the community rallied to defend the Amish and speak out against what they saw as unneeded and burdensome government regulations. Four people from my church (including me) spoke up for the Amish. Many more from the town also spoke. The discussion was sometimes animated and often heated, but it was, for the most part, civil. It was a classic example of rural, small-town ethics, and American democracy in action and, as such, it was a wonderful sight to behold.
Shortly before 9:00, Mr. Byler, the Amish Elder stood to speak. The room was hushed. Everyone was listening carefully. The long-bearded man with his distinctive plain clothing spoke calmly, clearly, and deliberately. In addition to the newspaper quote from him (as given above) I’d like to add that Mr. Byler said to the assembly that no Old Order Amish anywhere participate in any insurance. ”We trust God.” he explained.
Elder Byler’s explanation was a testimony of faith and when he finished speaking, the people in the room, many of them not regular churchgoers, responded, as the newspaper rightly reported, with a long and loud standing ovation. I wish those of you who are regular readers of this blog could have been there to see it.
Now we wait. Will the town board accept their attorney’s recommendation on this matter? Or will they give individual homeowners in their town the freedom to hire anyone they want to work on their homes and buildings? The Locke town board will meet again and make a decision later in December.