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Minnesota’s Amish Revolt Against Frac Sand Mining

by STEVE HORN

“History,” the old adage goes, “repeats itself.” And this is precisely the reason why we learn it.

Exhibit A: Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972), a landmark First Amendment Court battle royale. The case’s facts, as summarized by Oyez, are as follows:

Jonas Yoder and Wallace Miller, both members of the Old Order Amish religion, and Adin Yutzy, a member of the Conservative Amish Mennonite Church, were prosecuted under a Wisconsin law that required all children to attend public schools until age 16. The three parents refused to send their children to such schools after the eighth grade, arguing that high school attendance was contrary to their religious beliefs.

The Court was tasked to answer the following question: Did Wisconsin’s requirement that all parents send their children to school at least until age 16 violate the First Amendment by criminalizing the conduct of parents who refused to send their children to school for religious reasons?

Unanimously, the Court decided the Wisconsin education law on the books at that time, for the Amish specifically, was a form “compelled association.” Therefore, it was ruled an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment’s “freedom of association” clause.

Fast-forward 40 years, and the following questions arise: Is history repeating itself in Minnesota’s Amish communities where frac sand mining is occurring? Is the age-old cliché coming to fruition once more?

Winona Daily News: “Amish Speak Out Against Frac Sand Facility”

Shawn Francis Peters, author of the book The Yoder Case: Religious Freedom, Education, And Parental Rights, lays out the facts and circumstances behind Yoder eventually making its way to the High Court.

In his book, he explains the special concerns of the Amish community: “[N]early all the Amish who settled in the New World shared a well-defined set of core beliefs, with an unwavering commitment to separation from the world being among the most important” (14).

The key demand by Amish, Peters explains, was a demand to avoid all forms of “worldliness.” He wrote,

The…Amish were reluctant to provide their children with extensive formal schooling…[S]chooling that went much beyond the elementary level…was perceived as a grave threat to the faith…The Amish believed that if their children attended public schools for too long, the youngsters would be inculcated with worldly values (28-9).

As DeSmogBlog recently explaned in its short documentary film “Sand Land,” the race is on to mine for the prize of frac sand. The fine-grained sillica sand, predominantly located in western Wisconsin and in bordering Minnesota, is needed to extract shale gas, commonly referred to as “fracking,” in shale basins located in every crevice of the globe.

The Winona, Minnesota-area, it turns out, possesses a heavy concentration of Amish citizens. It is also now part of “Sand Land” and the frac sand industry’s “land grab.”

Does the industry’s ongoing “land grab” clash with the fundamental tenets of Winona’s Amish population? As it turns out, quite possibly.

In a story published July 5, the Winona Daily News explained the industry’s game plan in the area: “About 10 miles from the cluster of Amish farms, Faribault, Minn.-based Farm2Rail has proposed building a 300-acre rail yard that would serve as a washing and loading facility for frac sand, as well as for grain.”

Critics say the plan is an affront to the Amish way of life.

Lee Zook, an Amish expert and retired professor of sociology at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, told the Daily News, “Having a large industrial installment next to this kind of typical, idyllic, kind of farming community, is going to be extremely disruptive in terms of not only transportation, but also just noise levels.”

Zook also explained to the Daily News that it’s no small thing that the Amish community in Winona has decided to stand up and fight back.

“Many times, when they run into conflict with regulations and so forth, they end up resisting those on a very quiet basis rather than making any kind of protest,” he said. “So for them to go to meetings and voice concerns about this, is kind of an interesting way of, kind of a change.”

These observations shared by Zook echo those of Peters, who in his book wrote,

[N]early all the Amish who settled in the New World shared a well-defined set of core beliefs, with an unwavering commitment to separation from the world being among the most important….[I]f state authorities prosecuted them for holding such beliefs, the Amish would not resist” (Peters 14).

Yet, rare as it was, when a fundamental tenet of the Amish belief system was under attack, leaders of the Amish community in Wisconsin chose to stand up and fight back.

Their legal case ascended all the way to the Supreme Court — and they won.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Could history be repeating itself in Winona? Is it possible that the frac sand “land grab” is unconstitutional under the First Amendment’s “Freedom of Religion” clause? In other words, is the burgeoning industry preventing the Amish community from fully practicing its religion?

The debate, of course, is in its infancy. Yet, that said, history offers many important lessons for those willing to read it.

As novelist William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Steve Horn is a Research Fellow for DeSmogBlog, where this story originally appeared.

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Steve Horn is a Madison, WI-based freelance investigative journalist and Research Fellow at DeSmogBlog, where this piece first appeared.

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