A victory for freedom
By Congressman Joseph R. Pitts
For two and a half centuries, Amish youth have prepared for their vocation through informal apprenticeships after they finish Amish school - the equivalent of our eighth grade.
The Daily Labor Report explains: "After completing their formal classroom training at age 14 or 15, Amish boys typically receive training in farming or carpentry from their fathers." But as farmland in Central Pennsylvania becomes scarcer, more and more Amish are entering other trades, mostly in woodcraft and carpentry.
However, the Department of Labor's interpretation of child labor law led to stiff fines on woodworking businesses that employed apprentices. The interpretation prevents Amish business owners from allowing youth to even sweep sawdust, stack wood, or operate a cash register on the premises where woodworking tools are used.
This interpretation didn't make sense to me.
Amish youth are already exempt from state laws making school attendance mandatory when they have finished eighth grade and are 14 years old. They are permitted to work more hours than would normally be the case and to work during traditional school hours. And minors working in agriculture are exempt from child labor laws altogether.
The Amish community was being squeezed. Doing apprenticeships in farming was the only safe way to avoid fines, but it was the least practical trade to learn. The alternatives were unacceptable - allow Amish teens to remain idle or force them to break the law. This was direct threat to their way of life.
So, I introduced the Amish Labor Bill. Working with Amish leaders and officials at the Department of Labor, I crafted legislation that would allow Amish business owners to teach teenagers their trade, while preserving common sense workplace safety standards.
After years of negotiating with my colleagues in the House and Senate, years of drawing attention to the importance of this issue, I was pleased when President Bush signed this bill into law on January 23, 2004.
Over the years, we have stood up for groups like the Amish when the law or the interpretation of it threatened their well being and survival.
Almost three centuries ago, the Amish came to America to escape persecution, to worship and live freely. Their life and customs have remained mostly intact since they arrived. They do not ask for social security or unemployment or anything from the government. They have asked only that we leave them alone to raise their children and make a living.
This is not to say that certain groups of people should be exempt from all laws. There is a place for legal remedies in property disputes or public safety, among other things. But the law cannot become a force used to erode a group's foundational values and practices.
Labor laws had become that force to the Amish community. In much the same way we depend on high schools and colleges, the Amish rely on apprenticeships to carry on their way of life.
In the 17th century, people came to America to escape this application of the law.
Most people, when they tour the Capitol building in Washington, tour the Rotunda. It's the most recognizable part of the building, with its towering ivory dome crowned with the Statue Freedom.
Inside, there are dozens of paintings and sculptures, one of which portrays Protestant Pilgrims departing for the New World from Holland in 1620. The painting depicts several Pilgrim leaders gathered around a banned version of the Bible in prayer. A rainbow at the left side of the painting symbolizes hope and divine protection for their journey to what we now know as Massachusetts.
Like the Amish, they were in search of freedom. Our history is filled with stories like these - people from far away lands leaving their lives behind for a new start in freedom. Many, like the Pilgrims, searched for the freedom to worship their God freely.
That is what our nation is all about. So the freedom of communities like the Amish is intricately linked to our own freedom. The enactment of the Amish Labor law allows the Amish to continue the way of life they have enjoyed since their arrival here in America.
As they are allowed to live in freedom, so shall we.