Friday, October 14, 2011

Steel Wheels and the First Amendment

The Iowa Supreme Court heard arguments concerning the first amendment's free exercise clause yesterday, and a decision's expected in a few months.

"B-b-but Sparky!" you say, "What's that have to do with law down on the farm? Are we branching out? Oh, mama, could this really be the end?"

Hesh there, feller.

It seems that Mitchell County, Iowa passed an ordinance in 2009 forbidding the use of steel tractor wheels on hard surface public highways because they tend to tear up the road surface, and thereby hangs a tale.
It seems that Mennonite farmers in the county have had a practice of affixing steel cleats to the wheels of their tractors. Antique tells us that steel wheels were de rigeur on tractors until the development of good pneumatic rubber tires in the middle 1930s and they rapidly fell into disuse thereafter. By 1940, over 90 per cent of the tractors in use had rubber tires, and it was found in testing that rubber tires were more efficient, saved fuel, and in general were a needed improvement.

So you gotta ask yourself why the Mennonites not only insist on this retrograde practice, but are willing to litigate it to the highest court in the state on constitutional grounds? It's been suggested that the purpose is to discourage tractors from being used as personal vehicles or as automobiles to run errands, presumably by making it as uncomfortable as possible.

The constitutional argument rests on the first amendment's proscription against making law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. It's said that thwarting the use of grousers on the public highways is an impingement on the free exercise of religion.

Whether this is held to be so remains to be seen. My own take on the matter is that this may be a similar sort of controversy to the now familiar reflective triangles on the rear of Amish horse drawn vehicles. They are generally accepted, but some Amish have resisted the use of them.

A recent appellate case in the Kentucky Court of Appeals, Gingerich v. Commonwealth, raised a similar issue. There, the lower court evaluated the claims of the appellants using a strict, or heightened scrutiny, lens and determined that although the ordinance that required affixing a slow moving vehicle reflective devise did burden the Amish, it was outweighed by the state's compelling interest in road safety. The Amish took their appeal to the Graves County court which found that the ordinance applied to all slow moving vehicles.

The Kentucky Court of Appeals found that the appellants had not established a prima facie case of discriminatory effect and purpose, and therefore affirmed the trial court.

Stay tuned.


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