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Amish preparing for battle over town's ban on horses

Families arguing that curbs deny them means of travel

Friday, January 10, 2003

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

BELLEFONTE, Pa. -- They had to ask the permission of church leaders even to be in court yesterday, and they were a little put off by the swarm of news cameras that assembled after they got there.

But a pair of Amish men said yesterday that they'll go to Centre County Common Pleas Court, fighting to keep the horses that pull their buggies -- a dispute that, depending which lawyer does the talking, is either purely a zoning flap or an unconstitutional example of a non-Amish government squeezing Amish religious rights.

"I'll have to talk with our church preachers," Daniel King, 26, said yesterday after a district justice detoured the case from his office to Common Pleas Court. "But I don't think there will be any trouble. I think they'll allow us to go to court."

King and neighbor Daniel Beiler, 30, live in Nittany, a smattering of houses at the east edge of Centre County. There, in a collision of cultures, the Walker Township Zoning Hearing Board cited both during the past three months for keeping a horse apiece on land where zoning laws bar horses.

If they don't get rid of the animals, township Associate Solicitor David Consiglio said, zoning code passed in the mid-1970s and amended two years ago means $500-a-day fines.

That, King said, could force Amish families from a settlement born 28 years ago of its mother community in Lancaster County.

"It's zoning," Consiglio said. "This doesn't have anything to do with the Amish."

Yes it does, James Bryant, attorney for King and Beiler, told District Justice Daniel Hoffman yesterday. Horses are the key mode of transportation for a group that prohibits ownership of motor vehicles, Bryant said.

"Who are they picking on?" Bryant asked after yesterday's short-lived hearing. "Where it says 'prohibit horses' in the law, read it as 'prohibit Amish.' It doesn't say turkeys or burros or live Nativity scenes."

Hoffman yesterday could have levied fines, but before talking penalties, he gave King and Beiler the option of going to Common Pleas Court and appealing the citations.

King, a carpenter, moved to Nittany early last year. Beiler, a welder, bought his house five years ago. They are part of a flow of Amish families from hard-to-get farms to rural villages -- a recipe for the current clash.

While King rides a van to jobs with the building crew for which he works, he said the buggy is the lone acceptable mode for local family trips.

So, it's leave or appeal, he said.

Appeal could mean a repeat of the cameras and media attention that Belier said yesterday he didn't relish.

"But I'll have to get used to it," he said.

Tom Gibb can be reached at tgibb@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1601.

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