Living simply is a tenet of the Amish faith. But when one couple in southeastern Minnesota tried to build a house without a basic system for disposing water used to do laundry and wash dishes, county officials demanded they stop.

It raised a muddled question of religious rights vs. environmental safety in a case that is now in court.

Ammon and Sarah Swartzentruber are facing misdemeanor charges in Fillmore County for failing to get a building permit before starting construction on the house a couple of miles outside the small town of Harmony.

A permit would have required the couple to install a “gray water system.” It’s a modern convenience that, the couple argues, doesn’t comply with their religious beliefs.

It’s an issue that has been popping up around the country in recent years as state and local governments implement new standards for wastewater treatment, designed to tackle growing concerns about safe drinking water. Results have been mixed.

“It’s a thorny, complicated thing,” said Donald Kraybill, a professor and expert on Amish life at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. While the conflict is often resolved at the local level, in some cases Amish people have gone to prison over the issue, or moved, he said.

Religious variation

Forty Amish affiliations in the United States apply their faith differently, passed on through oral tradition, Kraybill noted. Most Amish families have indoor plumbing, for instance, while some conservative affiliations view it as unnecessary. The key question, Kraybill said, is whether the local church district is backing the Swartzentrubers’ stance.

“Then it becomes an issue of ‘Are they free to practice their religion?’ ” Kraybill said. “The state would have to provide a compelling reason for not making an exception.”

Public defender Frederick Suhler Jr., who is representing Ammon Swartzentruber, 26, said he’s still gathering information from the couple and the community. An attorney for Sarah Swartzentruber couldn’t be reached for comment.

Fillmore County officials said they anticipated some opposition to modern septic systems from some Amish affiliations. Officials created a separate, alternative ordinance with the Amish in mind in December, zoning administrator Christopher Graves said: New houses or transferred properties built without traditional indoor plumbing don’t need full-blown septic systems, he said. Instead, they can install smaller “gray water” systems, designed to filter household impurities out of the water that occupants bring into a house.

“We want to make sure everyone has clean drinking water,” Graves said. “When it comes to laundry water, you could have a baby’s diaper, a cloth diaper, getting washed in it. You don’t want to just throw all of … those materials out onto the ground.”

Houses without indoor plumbing typically use an outhouse or something similar for human waste, Graves explained. The county still allows that waste to be “land applied,” as long as it’s mixed with lime before it is spread, he said, though officials want to move away from allowing that.

Suhler said the county’s new requirements are raising the issue. “People who have similar beliefs to the client I represent have been living in Fillmore County for decades and getting by with whatever they were doing,” he said.

Charged in court

According to a criminal complaint, a sheriff’s deputy and Graves stopped at the Swartzentrubers’ land in early June to check on the building. They delivered citations along with cease-and-desist papers to halt construction.

The officials went back about a week later, however, and saw that the roof had been finished and house wrap had been added. A woman there said they had closed the house to make it weather tight, but they hadn’t done anything else.

They received another citation in November after officials discovered that more work had been done on the house.

The waste water system is not the only compliance argument surrounding the house. The couple also is being cited for too many dwellings in too small a space in the agricultural district. The house under construction is the fourth dwelling on the 40-acre parcel, where only two are allowed, Graves said. Relatives of the couple reside in the other buildings.

Another case in the county over a gray water system involving an Amish couple is also in the courts. Graves said in that case, the couple agreed to a gray water system but wants it to be smaller than what state rules would allow.

A trial in the Swartzentruber case is scheduled for early January.