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Speech to the Plain People Conference - Respecting religious liberty of all people

Location: Elizabethtown, PA

Speech to the Plain People Conference - Respecting religious liberty of all people

[As prepared for delivery]

Elizabethtown, PA - It's an honor to be with you.

I have enjoyed working with many of you over the years.

In particular I'd like to thank Dr. Kraybill for his support and assistance in passing the Amish Labor Bill.
I'd like to talk with you today about conviction.

Since I entered public life over thirty years ago, I have witnessed a sad trend.

Our culture has moved away from respecting people of conviction.

It has labeled them bigots, or close-minded, or foolish.

I firmly believe that conviction conveyed with respect is hardly bigotry.

America is great not because we are patchwork of different ethnicities and faiths.

It is great because can live together without demanding that our neighbors let go of their deeply held convictions.

We can work together.

That's what debate is all about

It's what this nation was founded on.

Old Order communities remind me of that.

They model it every day.

It's interesting to hear people's reaction to my efforts on behalf of the Amish.

Some say that because they don't vote, they don't deserve to receive any of my attention.

I disagree.

As you know, a couple weeks back we had an election.

Sadly, only 20 percent of the people who were registered to vote actually did.

So does that mean that I shouldn't pay attention to all those people who could have voted, but didn't?

Of course not.

The only difference is that the Amish refuse to vote because of their conviction, the "English" don't vote out of complacency.

This conviction, and the ability to hold it, is what America is all about.

There is a painting in the Capitol Dome.

It is of the Pilgrims on their way to Massachusetts.

They are huddled around a Bible praising God.

The casual tourist often misses the significance of this portrait.

The Bible they are using to worship God was outlawed by the King of England.

Their voyage to the New World was really a quest simply to fulfill their purpose in life, to pursue their conviction - to worship God.

While much of America has forgotten that heritage, Old Order communities continue to embody it.

And the preservation of that freedom should be on the top of our agenda.

If anything, we on the outside have a lot to learn from the Amish and other Old Order communities.

They care about what happens in their community

They show up at meetings.

They stand on principle.

They rally around those in need.

They go to church.

They live by faith in God.

They understand the importance of a hard day's work.

While the culture around them has undermined conviction, the Old Order life is one held together by convictions.

Their lives are proof that these timeless community values can work, and do work everyday.

Old Order communities are an example of standing in faith for what you believe.

And a vivid reminder that our culture has an interest in preserving their right to live as they like.

There was a time when multiculturalism was a principle used to open doors for groups who had been shut out of American life.

At one time, African-Americans could not live as they chose.

Through legal reforms and cultural changes this has changed and continues to change.

Old Order communities face a similar scenario.

They are not racial minorities.

They are not historically oppressed.

But they are not any less deserving of equal treatment.

They have chosen to lock the door to the outside world and its values.

These communities engage where necessary and avoid when essential to maintain their belief and seperateness.

But our culture - at least outside of this area - does not appreciate this.

Shouldn't multiculturalism allow a group to shut the door to things they don't want as much as it open doors for people?

I believe it should.

Old Order Communities ought to reserve the right to keep out whatever they want - whether it's electrical power, cars, computers, or cell phones.

This principle was on display when the TV network, UPN, announced that it was making a reality show about the Amish. The idea was to take Amish youth going through the rumspringa and put them in a house with English youth of the same age Video cameras would film Amish kids as they react to the outside world.

When I heard about this, I was deeply offended.

If you remember, the same network wanted to put "the Real Beverly Hillbillies" on the air.

They would take people from rural America and move them to Beverly Hills, just like the old TV show.

Except this was for real.

Public outcry stopped production of that show.

Well, Les Moonves, the President of CBS, which runs UPN said it would be good television to exploit this time in the lives of Amish teenagers.

He never seemed to understand that the very act of filming an Amish teenager violated a central tenet of Amish beliefs.
When TV critics asked why he picked the Amish for a reality series, Moonves quipped, "We couldn't do 'The Beverly Hillbillies' … but the Amish don't have quite as good a lobbying effort."

He was wrong

About fifty of my colleagues spoke out against this show

Last week, the network announced they would not air the program this fall.

That's a victory.

But we need to watch it closely.

And make sure this crazy idea doesn't creep back in.

Old Order Communities present unique challenges for a policy maker in an ever changing world.

Often, the solutions are not policy-based, they are influence-based.

With the reality TV show, legislation would have been too heavy-handed, and could not have passed in time.

But a coordinated effort, from Members of Congress, Amish leaders, and grassroots support, forced that show from the production room.

However, there are times when legislation is necessary on a federal and state level.

Since being elected to Congress, I have tried to change the law that was being abused to fine you for having teenagers under 18 do apprenticeships in your shops.

The declining opportunity to farm - in part, because of increased land values and development - has led the Amish to have their children apprentice is wood-working facilities - doing custodial and clerical jobs.

The Department of Labor was fining small businesses because of their interpretation of child labor rules.

It began to fine Amish businessmen who employ youth under the age 18 in businesses where machinery is used to process wood products.

This was a direct threat to their way of life.

And an affront to their religious conviction on raising their children.

They wish to have their youth work in vocational settings after completion of Amish school, which is equal to eighth grade.

Additionally, Amish communities do not approve of minors operating potentially dangerous equipment.
For me, there were two issues involved here.

First, was religious liberty.

The Amish live the way they do based on religious conviction.

The way anyone raises his children says as much about your religious beliefs as anything else.

To prevent children from learning a trade would be to endanger their religious way of life indefinitely.

The other issue was equity.

The survival of every society relies on a system to train their young people to be productive members of the community.

We do it through formal schooling - shop classes in high school, Vo-Tech, college, and trade schools.

The Amish have formal schooling through 8th grade and then apprenticeships at a family or community small business.
The law says the Amish could do this in agriculture, but not other trades.

This was a double standard.

In shop class, teenagers use power tools - like a table saw or drill press - to learn the art of woodworking.

At Vo-Tech schools teenagers learn to use the tools (often large power tools) they need on the job.

In these environments, one teacher (and maybe an assistant or two) is asked to supervise as many as twenty students while they use this dangerous equipment.

That hardly seems safer than the close adult supervision of a handful of teenagers in a shop sweeping sawdust or filing papers.

I introduced the Amish Labor Bill to fix this.

The bill was written to allow Amish youth to continue to do certain jobs in businesses where machinery is used to process wood products.

However, the bill contains several important provisions to ensure the safety of Amish youth, including a requirement to stay a safe distance away from dangerous equipment.

The bill passed twice - in 1998 and 1999.

But was stalled until last year when Senator Specter jumped on board and was able to attach it to a spending bill.
The President signed this bill into law in January.

I am working with the government and with some of you to rewrite these regulations.

Anytime a group or an individual resists the predominant culture, there will be tension.

How a culture treats these people and groups tell much about what it values.

When a culture gets to a point where its laws and attitudes endanger the health of these groups, we need to speak out.

I take this part of my job very seriously.

To me, I could not be a Member of the United States House of Representatives if I ignored my Old Order constituents.
I have always said that my goal in Congress - my job - was to bring our values to Washington but not let Washington impose its values on us.

As a lawmaker, I want Washington to have as little say as possible in how we live.

Government should reflect a basic morality, a commitment to freedom, a respect for human life, an ability to protect its citizens.

But it should not force families, small business owners, teachers to live a certain way.

That includes my Old Order constituents as much as it does my English constituents.

If I were to start making a distinction there, where would it stop?

As a person of faith, I very much believe that a society should be based on an individual's right to worship freely.
There will be times when this right may hinder what the government is trying to do.

But when government hinders this right, or takes it away, we all lose something.

The Pilgrims came here in search of freedom to worship.

But, you know, they would have worshipped in England anyway.

Many would have been killed.

The New World offered a chance to do it freely.

There are many pilgrims today who never have a chance to reach the New World.

In many countries, leaders abuse their power to oppress religious minorities.

In many of these countries religious minorities are killed for their faith.

They are imprisoned, persecuted, and ridiculed.

But they worship anyway.

I spend a great deal of time advocating for religious prisoners or speaking out for religious freedom.

When we expose their efforts to the light of day, progress is made.

But that job doesn't stop at the border.

It begins right here at home.

We need to expose this persecution at its earliest stages.

As professionals who work with Old Order communities, I believe our job is to prevent persecution in whatever form it might take.

We are all pilgrims in some sense, looking to live and worship freely.

The question is will this continue to be the New World or will we revert to colonial England?

If Old Order communities cannot worship freely, the power of the state can be abused to take away anyone's freedom to worship as well.

We cannot allow that to happen.

There are many issues facing Old Order communities.

This conference is touching on a lot of them.

If we are not a culture that values these communities, we will lose them and we will lose part of ourselves along with them.

I look forward to continuing to work with you on how I can best represent the issues facing Old Order communities in Congress.

I have some time for questions, if you have any.

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