By Todd Richmond
MADISON — An Amish man failed to show how obtaining a permit for his new sawmill violates his religion, a state appeals court ruled Thursday.
The 4th District Court of Appeals found Joni Borntreger’s arguments too vague to conclude the permit requirements infringed on his beliefs and kicked his case back to the circuit court level. The ruling reversed a decision by Jackson County Circuit Judge Thomas E. Lister, who initially ordered Borntreger to pay a forfeiture before changing his mind and dismissing the case.
Borntreger, of Fairfield, is representing himself, according to court documents. No residential listing could be found for him.
The Amish believe they must live a simple, nonviolent life. Many reject electricity, indoor plumbing and cars. They’ve run afoul of municipal ordinances in a number of states during the past few years for building without proper permits.
Their advocates argue the Amish belief of living apart from the modern world trumps local regulations. The Amish religion precludes them from defending themselves physically or legally.
According to court documents, Jackson County zoning officials cited Borntreger in June 2011 for building a sawmill without obtaining a zoning permit.
Borntreger filed a one-page, handwritten note in response saying he didn’t believe he needed a permit because his forefathers didn’t have deal with such regulations.
“My Dad [and] Grandpa or [forefathers] use[d] to do this like this,” Borntreger wrote. “They did not have to [go] through all these permits and stuff.”
Borntreger relied on his note as his defense during a trial in front of Lister in December. The judge at first rejected Borntreger’s arguments and imposed a $100 forfeiture.
A woman who identified herself as Donna Douglas then addressed the judge. Calling herself a friend of the Amish, she argued that Borntreger failed to articulate that the Amish build without permits because their religion requires them to keep things simple.
An unidentified man also addressed the judge, reading Bible verses about not conforming to the world. The man stated “with all the permits that are coming up we got to draw a line, and it’s going to affect our establishment of our order … this is affecting our religion.”
Lister construed the remarks as a religious objection from an “elder.” The judge changed course, saying the county didn’t show a compelling interest in requiring a zoning permit and he must defer to the religious objection.
County attorneys argued on appeal no one showed how applying for a zoning permit violates Borntreger’s religious beliefs. The appeals court agreed.
Borntreger’s note didn’t discuss any religious prohibitions against signing documents, paying government fees or giving the government information, the court said. Douglas failed to explain how a permit would burden specific religious tenets and the unidentified man didn’t explain what not conforming to the world meant, the court added.
County attorney Paul Millis immediately didn’t immediately return a message.