Hoping to avoid seeing a legal confrontation between the Amish and state government, Rep. Dave McCrea, D-Fort Fairfield, wants to let Amish community members hunt wearing red rather than blaze orange in accordance with their religious customs.
Dozens of Amish families have settled in Aroostook County and other parts of Maine in the last decade, and they now operate farms, carpentry shops, bakeries and other businesses. While they avoid most kinds of modern technology, they do participate in one of Maine’s oldest traditions: hunting, with firearms.
But Amish hunters in Maine have found themselves in a predicament. They say their religion prohibits wearing “flashy” or “worldly” colors like orange — a color hunters need to wear for safety reasons according to state law.
McCrea, a retired teacher whose hometown of Fort Fairfield is home to some of the first of the Amish families to settle in Maine, said he’s concerned that discrepancy could lead to a legal showdown, and is sponsoring a new bill to give Amish hunters an exemption: L.D. 426, “An Act To Allow Hunters Whose Religion Prohibits Wearing Hunter Orange Clothing To Instead Wear Red.”
Among other states with Amish communities, Minnesota adopted an exemption in 2013 for Amish hunters to wear red instead of orange, according to McCrea, adding that he based his bill on that law.
In others states, though, such as Pennsylvania, Amish community members do hunt and do wear the orange blaze, McCrea said. A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Game Commission said that the Amish are regular hunters and that they’ve never raised concerns about wearing orange blaze.
A number of Pennsylvania Amish hunters are actually regular patrons of Eagle Lake Sporting Camps for moose hunts, said McCrea, who knows the business’ owner.
The Amish in other states who hunt wearing orange are members of “more liberal” Amish groups, whereas the Amish settlers in Easton, Fort Fairfield and Sherman are “more fundamentalist,” McCrea said.
If the local Amish “get arrested hunting, they will not wear orange, and if the warden gives them a ticket, they will not pay the fine,” McCrea said. “I’m totally convinced we will see this go to court based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.”
That federal law states that laws “shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” even if the law is of “general applicability.”
Three members of Aroostook County Amish communities travelled to Augusta on March 16 to air their support for the bill at a hearing before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
“Our church group always maintained a belief against wearing hunter orange because of its bright and worldly color,” said Norman Miller of Fort Fairfield. “Our group currently wear bright red while hunting, despite the fact that it is not at all a favorite color for us.”
Noah Yoder, an Amish farmer and clock repair specialist also of Fort Fairfield, said during the hearing that if Amish hunters were cited for not wearing orange, they would not pay a fine, which also is against their religious customs.
“We all know what would then follow is a long, messy, expensive court battle, for the state and for us,” Yoder said. “The blaze orange requirement, as it is written today, forces us to either obey the law and give up our church fellowship, or follow church teaching and doctrine and break the law.”
The bill has the support of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, whose staff have told Amish members that they should seek an exemption, Yoder said.
Tim Peabody, IFW deputy commissioner, said that the bill “provides visibility for a hunter and a choice for persons who have a religious opposition to wearing hunter orange.”
As for whether the exemption would put Amish hunters at risk due to other hunters who may be color blind, McCrea said he thinks that risk would be low. There are about 50 Amish families in Aroostook County, he said.
As many as 8 percent of men and 0.5 percent of women of northern European ancestry have the common form of red-green color blindness, according to the National Eye Institute at the National Institutes of Health.
According to the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the issue of color blindness has not come up in the discussions about the exemption.
The committee on Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is holding a workshop on the bill at 1 p.m. Tuesday, March 28, in Room 206 at the Cross Building in Augusta.