Through a Glass, Darkly


World magazine reports that the State of New York has rewritten its building codes. Henceforth, all new residential structures must have electricity, running water, and windows that measure at least 5.7' square. Plans for new residential structures must be submitted for state approval, the approval of city or county planning authorities is not sufficient to allow anyone to build a new house.

You may be wondering why I think this new law worthy of attention on a Catholic blog. Does this have theological or religious implications for the Christian population of this country? It turns out that it does.

You see in Chautauqua, N.Y., there is a sizable population of Old Order Amish. Old Order Amish (OOA) are hard core Amish, no modern new fangled inventions for them. Houses are built out of wood, using hand tools. They don't use electricity, although running water is allowed, so long as it is through a gravity-fed system and supplies cold water only.(I told you they were hard-core.) They don't use zippers; they use hooks and eyes to fasten their clothes. Electricity, telephones, etc are also foreign to the OOA, they use kerosene lamps for light. Even the use of other kinds of oil is not permitted. Oh, and windows in their houses are 5.0' square, no more no less. Any deviation from these standards is considered by the Amish to be a matter of religious principle. The World article quotes the Amish Bishop for the Chautauqua area, Mose Byler, "If you break a tradition, where's the tradition. You aren't a faithful member."

It turns out the state authorities are willing to compromise on the electricity and plumbing, not on window size. You see, the state has recognized that, after generations of children growing up eating fast food, Americans are, shall we say, increasingly diametrically challenged. The old building code allowed windows 4.0' square. However, the building folks fear that most Americans would have trouble fitting through windows of this size in cases of fire or other emergency. The local fire departments have assured state building officials that, in this case, there is nothing to worry about. Fire departments respond to calls on 911, the Amish don't have telephones, much less 911, and by the time the fire fighters get wind of a fire on a remote Amish farm, the building has burned down. There is no need to worry about the size of the windows, since their wooden houses burn so fast, when fire fighters arrive there are no walls to hold the windows up. In fact, generally by the time fire departments get a call and respond, the industrious Amish have cleared away the debris and rebuilt the house, The firemen are perfectly welcome to come in through the front door. (That last is conjecture on my part.) Also, as reported by World, the Amish live 19th century life-styles, they shun such places as McDonalds and thus have no problem fitting through their 5.0' windows, even two at a time.

But the State of New York is adamant. Windows must be 5.7' square, no ifs ands or buts, religious principle be damned. There is the problem. At what point do laws such as building codes trump the Constitutional principle of the free exercise of religion? As the World writer points out, at what point can state or local authorities demand that the Amish must have electricity in their houses, or use cars instead of buggies? And, at what point can state authorities decide that Christians no longer have the right to celebrate Christmas, or Easter, or go to Mass on Sunday, since these things create too much congestion on city streets, thus increase the chance for accidents. What if Christians are denied the right to meet in small groups in their homes for Bible study, because of the congestion on residential streets? There comes a point at which we should recognize that there are many possible ways our right to practice religion and worship as we please can be denied, and we are no longer living in a society that is friendly to our Christian faith. The OOA are seeing this first-hand, through a glass, darkly.

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This page contains a single entry by Ron Moffat published on December 14, 2003 10:45 AM.

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