Thursday, May 8, 2003

New law lets Amish opt out of paying into workers' comp

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - Amish businessman Atlee Kaufman pays the state about $4,000 a year in workers' compensation premiums for his furniture-parts store.

He says he will never make a claim because it is against his religious beliefs, which include taking care of one's own liabilities. The Amish also believe that filing an insurance claim goes against Biblical principles of trusting in God.

A new law in Ohio exempts certain employers from paying premiums if they and their employees are members of religious sects opposed to insurance. The Amish have sought the provision for at least a decade.

"If we don't use it, why should we pay it?" said Kaufman, 52, owner of 77 Coach Supply in Mount Hope, about 35 miles southeast of Akron.

Twenty-five of Kaufman's 28 employees at his 22-year-old business are Amish.

He pays into a separate church aid fund to cover the cost of accidents, a practice followed by other Amish and Mennonite businesses.

The new provision is part of the Bureau of Workers' Compensation two-year budget, which Gov. Bob Taft signed into law Friday.

Under the state's workers' compensation program, employers pay into a fund that provides benefits to workers injured on the job.

The new regulation aligns workers' compensation law with federal law, which exempts the Amish from paying into Social Security, said bureau spokesman Jim Samuel.

Other states with Amish or Mennonite populations vary in their practice.

Kentucky and Pennsylvania have similar exemptions for employees of a "recognized religious sect."

However, neither Michigan nor Indiana allows groups to seek such exemptions.

Indiana lawmakers have struggled for years over whether to grant the exemption, said Sandy Fralich, a spokeswoman for the state Workers Compensation Board.

One issue "is the unfair advantage it gives the people that are exempt, because they're competing with people who have to buy insurance," Fralich said.

"The other issue is secular versus nonsecular, with the government trying to regulate something with someone's religion."

Some Ohio contractors oppose the measure on the same grounds.

"This option for some contractors is unfair, and unconstitutional as a violation of separation of church and state," Luther Liggett, an attorney representing the National Electrical Contractors' Association, said in a letter to the Senate Insurance Committee.

Contractors raised the same concerns last year over a provision that would have exempted religious groups from a requirement that commercial tradespeople, such as electricians or plumbers, carry liability insurance.

That legislation died in committee.

The workers' compensation exemption made it briefly into law six years ago as part of a bigger overhaul of state labor laws, but the change was overturned in a 1997 ballot initiative. The change had been opposed by pro-labor groups.

The provision was successful this year with backing by Senate President Doug White, whose southern Ohio district includes several Amish families.

Andy Raber, a spokesman for the Amish in Ohio - which number about 51,000 - said the Amish bear a number of costs that other companies don't, such as hiring drivers to take them to work sites.

"We always thought it was kind of unfair to pay into workmen's comp if we don't get the benefits," said Raber, 69, a retired farmer near Sugar Creek and director of the state Amish Steering Committee.

Kenneth Yoder, a Mennonite furniture maker in Kensington in northeast Ohio, said if a Mennonite employee is injured on the job, that person pays for the expense himself or receives financial aid from his church.

There are about 36,000 Mennonites in Ohio.

"Insurance violates our trust in God to start with," said Yoder, 47. "God controls all situations that come to pass in our life. We're satisfied to leave that in his control."

The prohibition on insurance and workers' compensation is also a way of emphasizing personal responsibility, Yoder said.

The federal Social Security exemption includes a statement about opposing insurance. As a result, many Amish have long found Ohio law inconsistent, said Monroe Beachy, an Amish businessman in Sugar Creek who helps small companies with payroll services.

"If I fill out this form and it's accepted that I'm now out of the Social Security system, but I continue paying into workers' comp, I'm contradicting myself," Beachy said.

The workers' compensation provision requires groups to have been a recognized religion since December 1950 and to have had a church program to cover members' insurance needs for "a substantial" number of years.

"They can't be Johnny-come-lately, they can't have started a church 20 years ago," said White, a Republican.

Paul Gaus, a College of Wooster chemistry professor and author of three mystery novels about the Amish, said the Amish believe that taking out insurance "is really second-guessing God's will in your life."

"It's also regarded as a colossal waste of money," Gaus added. "These are very frugal people for the most part."

The Amish and Mennonites both come from the Anabaptist religious tradition. The Amish dress simply, shun most technology and travel country roads in distinctive black buggies.

Mennonites often also dress simply but represent a broader range of beliefs. They are known for emphasizing a simple lifestyle and an opposition to war and, sometimes, military service.

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