Archive for Saturday, August 16, 2003

Amish-Mennonites face faith, security dilemma

August 16, 2003


— 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."

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