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Chesco Amish Couple Takes Township to Court Over Horse Rule

Pennsylvania’s constitutional court precedent might be on the verge of a unique expansion if an Amish couple in Chester County is successful at trial.

Samuel and Sadie Mae Stoltzfus of West Caln have brought suit against the township for refusing to allow the couple to keep a horse on a parcel of property across from their home.

Township ordinance says horses must be given at least three acres of land. The parcel across from the Stoltzfus home is one acre. Earlier this year, West Caln officials denied the family’s request to place their horse on the plot. The Stoltzfuses have filed an appeal of the decision in Common Pleas Court.

Assistant Township Manager Kim Milane-Sauro told DVJournal the township could not comment on the matter given that it is pending in court.

Thomas Martin, the lawyer retained by the Stoltzfuses, told DVJournal the couple “are hardworking Amish who only desire to allow their parents to keep their horse on their one-acre tract to abide by their sincere religious beliefs and customs.

“I believe the Board of Supervisors has ignored the law which requires that even restrictions which have general application in the township must be the ‘least restrictive’ necessary to accommodate the public interest sought to be protected when they interfere with sincerely held religious beliefs,” Martin said.

“The Board would not even allow us to question their expert witness on such matters,” he added, “so I believe my clients are being asked to comply with an illegal standard.”

The Amish couple said in their appeal that the township’s refusal to amend its code infringes upon their ability to obey their personal religious mandates, which they said are “sincerely held and compel their compliance for reasons of conscience,” according to the appeal provided to DVJournal by Martin.

Like many Amish, the Stoltzfuses exclusively use horses for transportation. “This is the teaching of the church of which they are members and of their church leaders, and it has been for many years,” they said in their appeal.

“Prohibition of Amish from keeping horses on lots less than three acres in size, when horses are their primary means of transportation, especially as applied to persons living in a rural setting, is an unreasonable and illegal interference with their right of conscience and religious observance,” the appeal states.

The township’s board of supervisors had earlier said that its three-acre minimum rule “is entirely a zoning regulation without any connection to religious affiliation.”

Thomas Jipping, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, said the state law presents “a very, very tough standard to meet.”

“There are two steps to a case like that,” he said. “The first is that, in this case, [the Stoltzfuses] would have to say that the government is imposing a substantial burden on his exercise of religion. In this case, they would have to argue that moving the horse across the street, or not being able to do it, substantially burdens their free exercise of religion.

“I think that would be a difficult argument to make,” Jipping said. “The ordinance doesn’t say anything about the Amish not being able to use non-motorized forms of transportation; it has to do with animal safety, and it applies across the board.”

The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act was first passed in 1993; it holds that the federal government may only “substantially burden” an American citizen’s religious freedom if it is “in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest” and “is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”

Twenty-one states have subsequently passed their own versions of RFRA. Pennsylvania’s Religious Freedom Protection Act, passed in 2002, stipulates “neither State nor local government should substantially burden the free exercise of religion without compelling justification” and without pursuing the “least restrictive means” of doing so.

Jipping estimated it would be difficult to argue before a court that the one-acre horse rule presents a “substantial burden” on the Amish religion.

“But if they do get past that obstacle, I think they have a good chance of winning,” he said.

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Neighbors Come Together in Opposition to Lower Merion School District’s Planned Athletics Complex

Opponents of the Lower Merion School District’s plan to locate new athletics fields in the heart of their neighborhood voiced their concerns and called on the school district and township to find a suitable alternative location. They say it would result in increased pollution, safety problems, traffic congestion, and the destruction of nearly 500 historic trees and 13 acres of critical woodland habitat in a generations-old canopy shared with Stoneleigh.

The neighborhood gathering that would have preceded Lower Merion Zoning Hearing Board’s scheduled Oct. 14 meeting, however it was but the zoning hearing was postponed and a new date has not yet been set. Multiple appeals were filed by residents who oppose the district’s plans for the new athletic field.

To date, 2,179 people have signed a petition calling on township officials and the school district to work together to explore other options and avoid the parcel’s complete deforestation, including clearcutting the vast areas of mature trees.

When neighbors and other supporters of the public gardens at Stoneleigh in 2018 successfully blocked the Lower Merion School District from seizing its land and taking part of the property for its then-proposed new middle school’s playing fields, the district looked at other sites. Eventually, it settled on land (1800 W. Montgomery Avenue and 1835 County Line Road), which include a forest and wildlife habitat. There are nearly 500 historic trees on the site near Stoneridge, Clairemont, and adjoining streets in the Rosemont-Villanova section of the township, the opponents contend.

Lower Merion School District residents sounded off on the ongoing issue and how it would impact their community.

“The issue with this proposal by LMSD is multi-faceted and unfortunately severely impacts the community it supposedly serves,” said Andrew Abramson, a Lower Merion resident. “The biggest impact to those of us who live in the immediate neighborhood is safety. But unfortunately, safety is being thrown out the window, and for those of us who have followed the process we just don’t understand why.”

“First, there is the safety of the children in an unsecured field. LMSD touts how safe the new school will be with high walls, security lights, cameras, and more,” Abramson continued. “It feels like they are pushing an agenda that in no way serves our community when there are a lot of better options.”

Another resident agreed.

“The LMSD was well aware of the limitations of that purchase and the challenges of making that property viable, with only one field and a few tennis courts, fitting into the unusual configuration,” Ann Gelfond said. “Their seizing of the County Line property for fields has many issues as well.”

“Both the school and proposed fields will impact the entire neighborhood, as well as our neighbors across Montgomery Avenue, with additional cars as both locations have minimal parking,” Gelfond said.

“The Lower Merion Board of School Directors and Administration strongly believe that every child in our district deserves the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities that will enhance their social/emotional growth and connection to their school community,” said Amy Buckman, a spokeswoman for the district. “For many of our students, participation in athletics supports these goals.

“That is why in December 2018, the district paid more than $12.9 million for the contiguous properties at 1800 W. Montgomery Avenue and 1835 County Line Road, which had both been offered for sale by their owners,” she said. “Since then, the district has invested significant capital in designing the project and going through the land development process, including a successful appeal of the township’s conditions of approval. The additional fields also support the township’s comprehensive plan, which noted the need for more playing fields in the community.

“Prior to finalizing the field location, the district looked at numerous other sites that ended up not working out,” Buckman added. “These included properties on Spring Mill Road, which contained protected wetlands; the area of Stoneleigh that’s currently being used for composting, the acquisition of which was blocked; Ashbridge Park, the acquisition of which was also blocked; and other sites that were deemed unsuitable for a variety of reasons, including topography, amount of acreage and distance from the school.

“While LMSD understands that some neighbors are concerned about having athletic fields for children near their homes, we believe that providing ample opportunities for children from our community to practice, play, compete and learn serves a greater good,” she said.