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FRANKFORT, KY – Today the Kentucky Supreme Court in a divided vote upheld the convictions of nine members of a conservative Amish sect on the basis that the Kentucky Constitution does not protect individuals’ right to exercise religious belief against a generally applicable traffic law. The men, all members of the Graves County Swartzentruber Amish, had appealed their criminal convictions for refusing to display a fluorescent-orange triangle on their horse-drawn buggies on the basis that doing so violated their religious convictions. Though five members of the Court voted to uphold the convictions, only four of those agreed that the the Kentucky Constitution is coextensive with the First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause. Writing separately, Justice Venters agreed that the convictions were valid but expressed disagreement with the majority’s conclusion that the Ky. Constitution is merely coextensive with the First Amendment. Justices Scott and Abramson dissented from the majority, however, believing that the Ky. Constitution is more protective of religious liberty than the First Amendment and that, as a result, the convictions should be reversed.
“While we are disappointed with today’s ruling, we are still thrilled over having successfully assisted the Swartzentruber Amish in securing a legislative victory that will enable them to continue living and worshiping here in Kentucky,” said Michael Aldridge, Executive Director of the ACLU of Kentucky.
These consolidated cases arose in 2007 and 2008 when members of the Swartzentruber Amish were convicted for failing to display the slow-moving vehicle triangles on their horse-drawn buggies. Following unsuccessful appeals to the Graves Circuit Court and the Kentucky Court of Appeals, Graves District Court Judge Deborah Hawkins Crooks jailed the men earlier this year for nonpayment of fines rather than wait until the Kentucky Supreme Court decided whether (or not) to hear the final appeal. Several weeks after being jailed, the men secured two victories: the high Court agreed to hear their appeals and the Kentucky Legislature amended the law so that the alternatives to the triangle could be used. That change in the law did not affect this case, however, because the convictions occurred before the law was enacted.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Kentucky is freedom's watchdog, working daily in the courts, legislatures and communities to defend individual rights and personal freedoms. For additional information, visit our Web site at: www.aclu-ky.org.