Iowa Supreme Court sides with Mennonites in steel wheels caseBy Mennonite Weekly Review staff
DES MOINES, Iowa — The Iowa Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of a group of Old Order Mennonites on Feb. 3 in a case involving their use of steel wheels on tractors.
Mitchell County had passed an ordinance barring vehicles with steel wheels from driving on paved highways, punishable with a fine of $500, 30 days in jail or both, possibly with the addition of costs to repair the road. The county spent nearly $16 million paving roads since 2009 and passed the law to protect the investment.
In an effort to promote community over individualism, members of the Groffdale Conference Old Order Mennonite Church cite Rom. 12:2 (“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world”) and prohibit rubber tires to discourage the use of tractors for running errands or shopping, which could lead to the use of trucks and cars.
In October, the court heard the case of 13-year-old Matthew Zimmerman, who was found guilty of violating the ordinance in 2010. In addition to violating their religious beliefs, church members said the ordinance kept them from accessing their fields and markets.
A district court judge had sided with the county, stating the ordinance “treats secular and religious conduct equally.” But Justice Edward Mansfield said the ordinance violated church members’ religious beliefs.
“Although the issue is a close one, we conclude the ordinance as applied to church members violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution,” he wrote.
The Iowa Supreme Court agreed with the lower court’s ruling that the law’s specific wording is neutral, but found the law was not “operationally neutral.”
The court said the county failed to write its law to regulate other sources of road damage — such as vehicle weight and school buses equipped with ice grips and tire studs year round.
Mansfield’s 29-page ruling noted a 2009 agreement in neighboring Howard County in which farmers who used steel wheels deposited $25,000 into a fund to cover future road repairs. Since the goal of road preservation could be accomplished without banning Mennonites’ tractors, the court found the law to be constructed specifically in response to a religious practice, in violation of religious rights.
“This is not a case where new activity brushed up against a preexisting ordinance, but where an ordinance was passed to deal with a longstanding religious practice,” Mansfield wrote.
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