KENTON - The Amish, more than 100 strong, squeezed into every available space of two rooms and a hallway at the Kenton-Hardin Board of Health meeting last night and, with hats in their hands, begged for mercy.
Henry Yoder read a letter signed by the Hardin County Amish community's seven bishops - its leaders - asking the board to reconsider its orders to condemn two new Amish homes because the owners haven't installed required wells and septic systems.
"Our goal is to uphold and maintain the biblical principles of faith which our forefathers believed: to be a separate people," Yoder read. "And, as stated in Romans 12th chapter, 'Be ye not conformed.'??"
After more than two hours of testimony from health officials, the board's eight members didn't change their minds. They reaffirmed the orders they issued in January to condemn the homes.
Until now, the 200 or so Amish families in Hardin County have never been made to comply with well and septic rules. But last June, local officials said they would no longer ignore violations at new homes or building additions. However, they won't make existing Amish homes convert.
Joni Hershberger and his family of 10 live in the home he still is finishing and have been ordered to comply. Yoder owns the other home that inspectors have cited. It's less than a half-mile up the road from Hershberger's 70 acres on Township Road 140 in Hardin County, about 65 miles northwest of Columbus. The Emory Gingerich family lives there.
Now, the families have three choices: They can dig proper wells and install approved concrete pits under their privies, appeal the orders to the Hardin County Common Pleas Court, or move.
By and large, the Amish don't believe in taking legal action. Hardin County Prosecutor Brad Bailey said that if the Amish don't appeal, a judge will be asked to sign the order, and the families will have to leave.
He couldn't say how soon that might happen if there is no appeal.
Bailey showed photos of what health officials said was gas and oil from a pump that already dripped in or near Hershberger's uncapped well. He said the issue is bigger than just two homes, that leeching and contamination from the human waste and bad wells can reach the water table and hurt others.
"Our rules at the health department are to prevent problems before they happen, not to react to them," he said.
And though the hearing room was small and everyone was jammed shoulder-to-shoulder, the divide between Amish and the health board couldn't have been bigger.
It was clear that the Amish didn't understand the proceedings, which were conducted like a court hearing.
Still, they used the bishops' letter to try to spread their message of shunning the outside modern world.
"Our goal is to live simple, God-fearing lives, and we feel your requirements are undermining our simple way of life," Yoder read. "Our plea is to live in peace among our fellow citizens and maintain our lifestyles on our own personal properties unless it is definitely proven we are a health hazard to our neighbors. We humbly plead for a variance. We beg for mercy."