Amish-Mennonites in Kentucky face dilemma of faith vs. national security

Posted: Friday, August 15, 2003

LIBERTY, Ky. (AP) From the swing on his Kentucky homestead's front porch, Lester Beachy exchanges waves with a family from his church as they return home in their van.

Like people in other rural farming communities, people here rely on their cars and trucks for almost all their transportation needs, whether that means shopping or worshipping. But for Beachy, a bishop in an Amish-Mennonite congregation, and others in his religious community of about 200 people statewide, driving has created a new problem.

Their faith allows them to get behind the wheel, but not sit for a driver's license photo as state law requires. Members of Beachy's enclave one of at least three in the state must now decide whether to bow to the demands of national security and keep driving or stand firm for a religious principle.

''It would open the door to what we consider unscriptural,'' Beachy said. ''I can see the state's concern, but I am not convinced that the state granting us an exemption on a religious basis would endanger the situation.''

State law has for years required Kentucky motor vehicle licenses to bear the owner's photo. Some circuit court clerks, however, have quietly and unofficially exempted people who had religious objections.

Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, state officials have cracked down. For the sake of homeland security, state Transportation Cabinet officials ordered clerks not to issue licenses without photos.

Dealing with a similar issue in June, a Florida judge said a Muslim woman could not wear a veil in her driver's license photo, agreeing with state authorities that the practice could help terrorists conceal their identities. The woman said her faith required her to keep her face and head covered out of modesty.

For many Amish-Mennonites, photos are a symbol of self-admiration and pride, contrary to their beliefs and way of life. Taking a picture is tantamount to creating a graven image a sin in their faith.

Cora Beachy, Lester Beachy's 22-year-old niece, says that relatives in her extended family have upset her by covertly snapping her picture.

Her driver's license, which expires in March 2006, has a blue box which reads ''valid without photo.'' However, she realizes the growing possibility the state may one day force her to break her religious convictions.

''I really don't care to have a picture,'' she said. But she also knows her family needs her help running their cattle farm 60 miles south of Lexington, and that includes running errands in that family's 1989 Dodge.

''If I had to (get a photo), I would,'' she said. ''I guess I would just accept it.''

People should not have to compromise their religious convictions to qualify for state benefits, said John Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Insititute, a religious freedom organization in Charlottesville, Va.

''You have to protect these people or they get wiped out,'' Whitehead said. ''And they shouldn't have to violate their beliefs to get a driver's license.''

Within the larger Mennonite church, Amish-Mennonites are more modern than old-order Amish who ride in buggies and don't use electricity, said Al Keim, director of the Valley Brethren Mennonite Heritage Center in Virginia. Nevertheless, their convictions are strong, he said.

''They take very seriously the biblical injunction that they are not to make any images of themselves,'' said Keim, who grew up Amish.

John Miller, 29, an Adair County Amish-Mennonite, works as a carpenter. He said he doesn't judge those who take pictures. Likewise, he said, he wants to make that decision for himself.

Miller's license doesn't expire until 2007. Without a change in state law before then, Miller said he's not sure what he'll do.

''That's one thing I would like to avoid,'' Miller said.

Rather than submit to pressures from the religious majority, Joseph Borntrager is asking the state to allow his community an exception.

''We feel we are obligated to submit to the authority and to the laws of the land, providing it does not overstep biblical principle,'' said Borntrager, a bishop of Hickory Amish-Mennonite Church in Graves County, in western Kentucky. ''But in that event which we feel this is something that does then we feel our calling is higher to God.''

Borntrager has enlisted the help of state Rep. Fred Nesler in trying to change the law. Nesler said he plans to introduce legislation next year that, if enacted, would allow a fingerprint or Social Security number instead of a photo on the license.

To guard against impostors posing as Amish-Mennonites, the state could require some form of affidavit, he said.

''With that being a strong religious belief they have, we ought to be able to find a way to allow them to get a driver's license without their photo,'' Nesler said. At least 10 states allow for some photographic exception, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But State Rep. Mike Weaver said he opposes the idea. A driver's license is a privilege, and everyone should follow the same set of rules, Weaver said. Giving an exception ''opens the door'' for others.

''If you live in this country, you have an obligation to help in any way you can to secure this country and to help prevent any kind of a terrorist act,'' Weaver said. ''A little sacrifice of putting your picture on a driver's license is not too much to ask.''

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