FRANKFORT, Ky. — Amish men from across Kentucky arrived at the Capitol on Tuesday to watch the Senate approve a bill that would allow them to use reflective tape on their horse-drawn buggies rather than bright orange triangular signs that some object to on religious grounds.
Western Kentucky resident Jacob Gingerich was one of 18 Amish men in broad-brimmed black hats watched from the gallery as the Senate voted 38-0 to pass the bill. They rode on buses to Frankfort from Mayfield, Leitchfield and Auburn to watch the Legislature step into a long legal fight that has resulted in jail time for some who have refused to display the slow-moving vehicle signs.
Gingerich, who spent nearly two weeks in jail for refusing to display the orange triangle on his buggy, said the measure respects the religious rights of the Amish while improving highway safety.
"The tape is more visible at nighttime than the triangles," he said.
The bill still has to make its way through the House, where some similar bills are already pending. House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, spoke favorably about the proposal Tuesday afternoon.
"If the symbol is objectionable because of religious beliefs, then I think we ought to be sensitive to that," he said.
Sen. Ken Winters, R-Murray, is pushing for the bill that allows the drab Amish buggies to be outlined with gray or silver reflective tape that makes them shine brilliantly in the dark when they reflect car lights. Winters said tests have proven that the reflective tape makes the buggies visible up to 1,000 feet away.
The legislation, which would go into effect immediately after being signed by the governor, was prompted by recent jailing in Graves County of Amish men of the conservative Swartzentruber sect for their refusal to pay fines in traffic cases caused by their not using the signs. The defendants have appealed their convictions to the Kentucky Supreme Court on religious grounds.
The Amish argue that God directs their safety, even on the roads, that the bright color of the signs calls attention to them, which is against their religion, and the triangular shape represents the trinity.
"My motive is to develop an accommodation for them that will create a much safer situation for them on the roads," Winters said. "I've had input from a half dozen or more states that have made this accommodation for them, as well as our own law enforcement and justice people who feel that something should be done."
The Amish men who have been fined and jailed for refusing to hang the orange traffic signs on their buggies may be back in Frankfort next month to argue their religious freedom case before the Kentucky Supreme Court. Justices are scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case on March 15.
William Sharp, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, is representing the Amish men, and the Kentucky Attorney General's office will argue the state's case.
Winters' bill could resolve the issue at the legislative level. And, he said, it would make the roads safer for everyone by requiring the back and sides to be outlined in reflective tape as well as the front left corner. The bill also sets parameters for the lights used on the buggies. The one on the left side has to be a foot taller than the one on the right.
"It will absolutely boggle your mind how brilliant the tape is," Winters said.
The bill is SB 75.