Friday, February 03, 2012

Iowa High Court Holds Ban On Steel-Wheel Tractors Violates Mennonites' Free Exercise Rights

In Mitchell County v. Zimmerman, (IA Sup. Ct., Feb. 3, 2012), the Iowa Supreme Court held that a county ordinance prohibiting use on paved roads of tractors equipped with steel cleated wheels violates the 1st Amendment rights of members of the Old Order Groffdale Conference Mennonite Church.  The Mennonites adopted the steel wheel requirement in order to prevent tractors displacing the horse and buggy and destroying their close-knit community.  The court concluded that the ordinance is not one of "general applicability" because it contains exemptions for school buses to use ice grips and tire studs year round, and does not address sources of road damage other than steel wheels. A free exercise challenge to a law that is not generally applicable will succeed unless the state shows a compelling interest and a regulation narrowly drawn to further that interest.The court concluded that the county had not shown that the ordinance was narrowly tailored.  It said: "A more narrowly-tailored alternative might allow steel wheels on county roads in some circumstances, while establishing an effective mechanism for recouping the costs of any necessary road repairs if damage occurs." The Des Moines Register reports on the decision.

UPDATE: According to AP (2/8), Mitchell County will not appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court because the ordinance at issue in it has now been replaced by a different one which the county attorney believes will be upheld if challenged.