Michigan county threatens to bulldoze Amish homes in poop dispute

Amish buggy

An Amish buggy travels down a Lenawee County road. (Bridge photo by Ted Roelofs)

LENAWEE COUNTY—As late afternoon sun streamed into the home’s spare living area, an Amish couple recalled the day this past August when a Lenawee County health official came to their door to post a notice.

“Do Not Enter,” it warned. “Unfit For Human Habitation.”

And below that: “Order to Vacate.”

An accompanying letter warned that the county could seize their home if they failed to comply with county codes for sewage disposal and household wastewater. Similar notices were posted on more than a dozen Amish homes in this rural county just north of the Ohio border, sending waves of fear through the growing Amish community.

“I was scared. I was afraid they would come get us,” the community’s bishop told Bridge Magazine.

The bishop, 68, asked not to be named, as did others who spoke to Bridge. Their request not to be named (or photographed) is a convention of their faith that instructs members not to call attention to themselves. 

Amish warning notice

The county later filed suit against occupants of 15 Amish homes, seeking their demolition if the community does not fall in line with county health codes.

The core of the legal showdown: What the Amish do with their poop. 

Instead of indoor plumbing and toilets, they use outhouses. They then dip out their waste by bucket, treat it with lime, mix it with animal manure and spread on their farm. The county’s threat notwithstanding, they say the practice should be protected from county regulation because it is woven into their religious belief system that dictates they live simply.

Critics of the county’s legal stance against the Amish say they find it ironic that within miles of these modest Amish settlements, factory farm operations with thousands of cattle churn out hundreds of tons of manure a day that is spread on fields, which Lenawee officials have not objected to.  

Which has put county government on the defensive. 

“Destruction of the Amish homes, that’s not our desired goal,” Lenawee County Administrator Martin Marshall told Bridge.

“What Lenawee County is attempting to do is ensure that they comply with the objectives of the health code,” which requires homes be equipped with “a safe and adequate sewage system.”



“I guess if we can’t reach a resolution in any other fashion, the county would be forced to proceed to protect the public health," said  Lenawee County administrator Martin Marshall (Courtesy photo)

Marshall said the county is prepared to seek demolition of the homes if all else fails.

“I guess if we can’t reach a resolution in any other fashion, the county would be forced to proceed to protect the public health.” 

In December, the stakes grew as the ACLU of Michigan countersued the county on behalf of the Amish, joined by an Ohio law firm and other lawyers. The civil rights group argued that enforcing that section of the health code infringes on Amish group’s religious freedom. 

“This is religious discrimination plain and simple,” said Phil Mayor, an ACLU senior staff attorney. “The (U.S.) Constitution promises the right to practice religion the way they see fit as long as it doesn’t harm others. This doesn’t harm others.

“We are unaware of any evidence that anything the Amish are doing in Lenawee County is unsafe.”

“This is religious discrimination plain and simple,” said ACLU of Michigan attorney Philip Mayor. (Courtesy photo)

The case is scheduled to hear pre-trial motions Feb. 3 in Lenawee County Circuit Court.

Residents rush to defend Amish  

The beliefs of this Old Order community, dating back centuries, tell them to abstain from most aspects of modern life. They dress plainly. They have no cars or phones and use horses instead of tractors to plow the ground and harvest their crops. They do not use indoor plumbing, electricity or hydraulic power. They travel by horse and buggy.

And they do not use septic systems.

amish buggy

Amish rely on large work horses to farm their land. (Bridge photo by Ted Roelofs)

Judging by the array of comments posted on the Lenawee County government Facebook page, the decision to take the Amish to court strikes many locals as  government overreach.

“Here's a FAQ ... at least it should be ... why are you going after the Amish?” one commenter wrote. “Why are you destroying their homes? So what, they aren't depending on modern water, sewage, or electric. Does it hurt you that they're living off the grid?

Another posted: “This country was founded by persons fleeing religious persecution, and that is what this is, pure and simple. Shame on you for your lack of humanity!!! You are tyrants!!”

A third questioned why Lenawee County would pick a fight with the Amish, while seeming to ignore the large factory farms. “L.C. you let the Mega Farms spread Mil. Of gallon of poop and you say it's ok”

Cattle poop more  

Environmental groups note that Lenawee County is home to more than a half dozen sprawling factory farms, many with 3,000 or 4,000 animals that can churn out hundreds of tons of manure a day. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the manure from a dairy farm with just 200 cows produces as much nitrogen as sewage from a community of 5,000 to 10,000 people.

Much of that animal waste winds up as liquid manure spread across local fields, hauled from waste lagoons by truckloads in late fall and early spring. While that can help increase crop yield, it also can degrade water quality when nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen run off into streams and rivers.

Environmentalists link the growth in the number of these farms – regulated by the state as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) – to the rise in toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie.

Michigan’s growing Amish presence

With a population rise of 45 percent since 2010, Michigan now has the sixth highest Amish population in the nation. The top 10 in 2019 population:

  1. Pennsylvania 79,200
  2. Ohio 76,195
  3. Indiana 57,430
  4. Wisconsin 22,020
  5. New York 20,595
  6. Michigan 16,410
  7. Missouri 13,990
  8. Kentucky 13,345
  9. Iowa 9,980
  10. Illinois 7,730

Source: Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, Elizabethtown College

In 2015, the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter issued a report that found large factory farms in Lenawee County along with those in a county in Ohio were top producers of manure in the watershed that drains into the western basin of Lake Erie. It also found that between 2008 and 2015 Lenawee County was home to CAFOs with the most environmental violations, 67, and illegal discharges, 37, in the watershed.

A group called Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan ‒ which monitors CAFOs in the Lenawee County area – noted dozens of violations over the years by CAFOs in the county.

“We don’t support pollution by anyone, whether it is a failed septic tank or a small farm or a CAFO,” said Pam Taylor, an activist with the group.

“CAFOs are far worse, absolutely, because of the sheer amount of their animal waste.”

But Taylor added that she’s opposed to Amish farming practices as well – citing the disposal of human waste on the land – and said they should be barred from doing so.

“Putting human waste on the land is a problem,” she said.

As for oversight of CAFOs, Lenawee County administrator Marshall noted that it’s the state’s job to regulate agriculture – not the county’s. Indeed, the state has cited large Lenawee farms for alleged manure violations, including an operation 20 miles north of the Amish settlements for discharging thousands of gallons of liquid manure in incidents in 2010 and 2015

The county, Marshall said, is compelled to enforce health codes relating to the disposal of waste produced by people. 

“We have no authority with regard to those (CAFO) operations. We don’t have a huge duty there. Where we do have a duty is where it is related to human waste.”

Marshall said he’s not aware of any specific data – such as stream samples near Amish land – that document wider community health or sanitation risks from Amish outhouse waste.

Forsaking the modern world

According to the bishop, most of the Amish in his church community moved to Lenawee County from neighboring Hillsdale County in 2015, seeking room to farm. A community of about 150 people, they are clustered within nine miles of each other on farms in the southwestern corner of the county. They raise corn, oats and pumpkins as well as calves for outside cattle operations.

They are among an estimated 16,000 Amish in 50 settlements in Michigan, according to the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. Their numbers have climbed by 45 percent since 2010, making Michigan the sixth largest state in Amish population.

The first Amish came to America beginning in the early 18th century to escape religious persecution in Europe and find land to farm. Their numbers came from a schism in the Anabaptist church by followers of Jakob Amman, a Swiss minister who believed adherents should “forsake the world” as much as possible in their daily lives.

“We believe in that because we want to go to Heaven,” the bishop told Bridge.

Bearded, with round wire rim glasses, he was dressed in plain black pants, suspenders and blue shirt, as was another man in the home that day, the community’s minister. Their wives wore long black dresses and white caps that are traditional in this sect. Unlit kerosene lanterns rested on a shelf over his head, above that, a windup clock.

Amish bonnets

Amish women wear these traditional caps and bonnets. (Bridge photo by Ted Roelofs)

The room was toasty, the heat coming from a nearby wood stove.

As an Old Order community, the Lenawee County Amish are on the conservative end of the Amish faith spectrum. While they disavow indoor plumbing, Amish in many other Michigan counties use toilets and septic systems. Members of an Amish community in St. Joseph County, according to Amish America, a website that reports on Amish communities, use telephones, work in area factories and operate a sawmill and a variety of other businesses.

“I would say more of the Amish have indoor plumbing than don’t,” Erik Wesner, the founder of Amish America told Bridge.

Wesner said conflicts similar to those in Lenawee pop up in conservative Amish communities elsewhere, including a recent showdown in an eastern Ohio county where health officials sought to condemn Amish homes over how they were disposing of dish and toilet water. The case was settled in 2019 when the Amish agreed to cover their waste in the soil and add lime to the mix before they spread it as fertilizer. 

There have been similar cases in Minnesota and in Pennsylvania, where an Amish farmer was sentenced to 90 days in jail in 2009 for failing to bring two outhouses into compliance with state sewage laws.

Wesner said he’s unaware of any case similar to the Lenawee County lawsuit that went as far as seizure or destruction of Amish homes.

The bishop said he and his fellow Amish had virtually no conflict with local government in Hillsdale County. “We never had any trouble there,” he said.

Paul Andriacchi, environmental health director for the Community Health Agency in Branch, Hillsdale and St. Joseph counties, also said he knew of no dispute in Hillsdale over waste.

“In my tenure, we have not had any complaints about the Amish disposing of human waste in their fields. We do not go out and hunt people down for that. We deal with issues like that on a complaint basis.”

The Lenawee lawsuit says the county received a complaint in June of 2015 that Amish residents had moved an outhouse onto their property with no provision for properly disposing of waste. A subsequent investigation by a health inspector, it stated, found the property had inadequate sewer and water systems and was thus “unfit for habitation.”

That began months, then years of negotiations between the Amish and county officials seeking settlement of the dispute. Marshall said the county offered the Amish the option to place their outhouses over existing septic systems on their properties, but they declined.

The Amish bishop said it seemed to him the county was asking them to violate their religion: “We tried to negotiate and there was nothing to negotiate with.”

Since community members don’t use toilets or indoor plumbing, a septic tank, if the community used one, would soon clog for lack of water to flush it out, the bishop said. 

His second objection was more fundamental.

“If we do that step, it’s one step closer to using toilets,” he said. “That’s against our religion.”

The bishop recalled a conversation with a county health official, in a room with an American flag. He said she was asking him to make compromises his faith just would not allow.

“I said to her that people came over the seas for their religious freedom. Do you want to tear out a piece of that flag?”

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Thu, 01/16/2020 - 8:26am

well it seems that some one wants their land!!!! That happens all the time A developer see land that he wants and then goes to the city to force the people to sell their land!!!!

Sun, 01/19/2020 - 11:05am

My thoughts exactly! A bet within one year massive developments will take place on these lands netting the new owners millions of dollars. The developers will claim they have cleaned up the sights, making them habitable.
Will be interesting if any follow up articles take place. The ACLU, needs to have a multi billion dollar lawsuit, and demand relocation for the Amish and their farms! Religion freedoms, only if it does not interfere with money. IMHO

Alan T Harvey
Fri, 01/24/2020 - 6:31pm

"Somebody wants their (Amish) land"
No reason to think that, since the Administrator has made it quite clear the County insists that every dwelling comply with its current health code regulations. It's all about" America, the land of the un-free, the controlled, the regulated, the monitored." A lot of totalitarians now inhabit the former "land of the free." And fucking POS, Martin Marshall, is one of them.
"Why, before long, Sir, you'll have your own Gulag to run." Just as soon as you stuff enough ballot boxes and import more low-IQ welfare migrants, all you commissar-types will be sitting pretty.-- then you can fulfill Michelle Obama's plan to "fix the supermarkets in America." "Venezuela, here we come! We will starve, but Mr Marshall won't!"

Tue, 01/28/2020 - 8:21am

It's possible. But it could also be purely religious discrimination. Christians, you know.
Two flies in one hit, right?

Miriam I.
Thu, 01/16/2020 - 8:44am

Does the Lenawee County Amish community mentioned in the article sell produce they grow in the fields fertilized in part with human waste? If so, then those from outside the community purchasing such produce should be informed of the fertilization practice. If nothing edible by humans is grown in the field, or if any edible produce is consumed solely by the Amish community members, there should be no issue for the county health authorities. Their farming practices should be their business, if they are the only ones impacted.

Sabrina G
Thu, 01/16/2020 - 10:03am

Farming practices do not end at property lines, nor do other water pollution problems.
Human waste, whether from a leaking septic tank or an outhouse (that does not have a maintained septic) impacts surface waters (streams, rivers, lakes), and groundwater - the drinking water for people and animals.

Fri, 01/24/2020 - 7:52pm

Are you just stupid?

Sandyfeet on Table
Fri, 01/24/2020 - 2:03pm

fyi -- If you have ever bought any fruit or vegetable grown in Mexico, you are also consuming human waste. Our government has not limited what fruits/veggies come into the US for sanitary/health reasons. This leads me to believe that adding lime neutralizes the negative aspects.

Tue, 01/28/2020 - 8:27am

You are not "consuming" human waste if you wash that fruit or those vegetables. Humanity has been cultivating fruit and vegetables with human or other manure for ages.

MI User
Thu, 01/16/2020 - 9:27am

Maybe someone should look at which of the corporate farms want the land the Amish families are on. I’m sure the county officials see the benefit to having corporate ownership of the land vs individual or church ownership.

Thu, 01/16/2020 - 9:39am

the story loops/repeats - in case no one informed you - so you can correct it. mistakes happen


Sabrina Gross
Thu, 01/16/2020 - 9:56am

Exercising your religious freedom does not mean you have the freedom to pollute.
Sewage discharge pollutes surface & groundwater, whether the sewage is from an outhouse or a failing septic system. All people (and animals) use surface & groundwater as drinking water sources, thus my religious beliefs direct me to follow health laws and not pollute.
Lenawee & Hillsdale counties should hire this Michigan business to sniff out the sources of human waste, & also test surface waters for E coli:

Sat, 01/18/2020 - 7:07am


Fri, 01/24/2020 - 7:20pm

These people are not polluting anything and neither are the farms. This is how waste has been used since the beginning of time. If you have a problem with any of this then you are ready give up just about everything you will find in any grocery store!

Tue, 01/28/2020 - 8:48am

The Amish have got to use SOME sort of septic system. They are civilized people, not savages living out in the jungle. My guess is they do have some system. How else could they go on living? They don't look like people living in filth, do they?

Henry Saur
Thu, 01/16/2020 - 10:47am

I worry a lot less about an outhouse on many acres of land and treated waste on crops than lagoons of animal waste poorly managed. We need to respect their desire for a simple life that has more respect for the earth than does our society as a whole.

Thu, 01/16/2020 - 10:58am

Would composting toilets appease the crown? Read "The Humanure Handbook", etc.

Thu, 01/16/2020 - 1:51pm

More CAFOs, less Amish! Ha ha, keep voting for the GOP, Amish voters. Pssst, the ACLU is supported by Democrats.

Thu, 01/16/2020 - 7:29pm

Clearly you don't know Amish folks! Very very few vote . They just want to be left alone by us.

Fri, 01/17/2020 - 9:01am

Clearly you don't know that it only takes one vote to win or lose an election. All votes matter. You get a C for effort. Yes, Amish people vote too! Right now their Republican votes support farm subsidies for Big Agra to put their small farms out of business. You're just lucky that they aren't supposed to be reading online news.

Fri, 01/17/2020 - 2:26pm

Anyone with more than a vegitative IQ would know that Dems support big ag and subsidies just as much as Rs. And while kidding yourself go ahead thinking your vote matters too.

Sun, 01/19/2020 - 6:39am

LOL!!! Yep Our votes do not matter that WHY the anti-American Putin backing republicans do all that they can ( Like YOUR Lies) to stop people from voting!!!

I Art Laughing
Sat, 01/25/2020 - 1:26pm

These Amish don't vote. It's against their religion to use a toilet, where do you think a ballot box comes in? Never let the truth get in the way of your narrative, leftist.

Tue, 01/28/2020 - 8:55am

I don't see how you make the connection between toilets and ballot boxes. It's not as if those Amish don't know which is which, you know;

Thu, 01/16/2020 - 5:52pm

“In God we trust, all others bring data.”
Perhaps Mr. Marshall should take the time to read the Lenawee County Health Code, which is supposed to “protect the public health, wealth and safety”. It speaks to having proof, i.e. demonstrating by scientific basis, that there is in fact a public health, welfare or safety issue. You take samples and if you have data which can prove there is a problem, you move forward. I’ve used and been around outhouses for over 70 years and can not think of a single instance of a health or safety issue. While there are a small number of bacteria and viruses which are pathogens (only a very few of which are found in 'human poo'), they are simply a tiny speck in a large bucket compared to the number of bacteria which keep us alive - we could not live without the billions of bacteria (microbiome) in our guts.

The Lenawee Health code also provides for variances with 4 clear cut criteria, which certainly cover the referred to outhouses. How does bulldozing someone's home serve to "protect the health, wealth and safety"? most outhouses I've seen are outside -

Thu, 01/16/2020 - 7:34pm

A septic systems mixes human waste with water, it decomposes then flows into tile and eventually into the water table.

An outhouse mixes nothing with human waste, it decomposes above the water table and mostly stays above the water table.

In both cases drinking water is pulled from much deeper depths than the water table.

Why is one more of an environmental hazard than the other?

Fri, 01/17/2020 - 2:35pm

EB rural septic systems assuming proper construction rely on dispursal through upper soil layers, being taken in by plants and eventually upward evaporation not sinking down to the water table. But I can see why you'd think this.

Helen Lambright
Fri, 01/17/2020 - 5:37am

All Lenawee county wants is money...that is most likely why they want to conform..leave the Amish alone.

jay M
Fri, 01/17/2020 - 11:12am

sounds good to me

Fri, 01/17/2020 - 11:24am

I can say one thing about Amish they are the most Miserable neighbor I've ever had . Glad to see some getting on them

Sat, 01/18/2020 - 7:05am

"People came over the seas for their religious freedom."
Actually, people fleed there not because their religious freedom was being oppressed, but because they were not allowed to oppress other people's religious freedom.

Fri, 09/18/2020 - 9:28am

You are mistaken.

Sun, 01/19/2020 - 11:12am

Please show me photos of these multi-thousand Amish cattle farms in the county and not just a photo of 4-5 draft horses. These cattle farms require electricity to operate and the Amish do not usually use electricity.

Pale Rider
Sun, 01/19/2020 - 4:55pm

Has anyone told the bishop about "waterless composting toilets"?
This will solve the problem and not violate there religious convictions.
All someone has to do is take the bishop to Home Depot for show and tell.

Fri, 01/24/2020 - 12:24pm

Well..... it looks like no one cares since no comment or follow up since 1/16. I get everyone is watching TV to see who wins Washington, D.C. Great time for county to slide in for the kill. :-(

Tue, 01/28/2020 - 9:47am

Maybe curious about the global pandemic. It's not impossible.

Fri, 01/24/2020 - 12:29pm

I live in Michigan and sometimes this state is criminal in its actions. It's bad enough that we have some of the worst roads in the country and undoubtedly the highest auto insurance, but why do you have to challenge people who are living a simpler life? I am not Amish, but fully support their way of life. Why don't you go waste money on some other silly project and let the Amish live in peace? No modern plumbing...which is about the same as campers experience but only on a longer term perhaps. I virtually lived in my cargo van for years when I was working on the road...no modern plumbing either.

Fri, 01/24/2020 - 12:44pm

The modern toilet wastes an incredible amount of drinkable water. It's garbage.
What do you think SOIL is made of? Why do the ancients say things like "He soiled himself"? Because SOIL is made of poop + plant matter! If you don't put the poop back into the soil between 6"-10" below the surface, then PLANTS DON'T HAVE FOOD!! Trees extend out their branches, like waiting arms, to the birds and are practically shouting "COME FEED ME!" They are bird toilets! This is how a tree gets food!!! And CO2 is how a tree also eats, but we're not talking about the global warming hoax right now.

The modern public sewage disposal model condenses the poop in a cold process using way too much drinkable water. If the poop was HOT-composted with plant matter, the positive bacteria in soil would break down the poop, and any toxic heavy metals and diseases like e. coli, staph, strep, and parasitic worms . The resulting dirt would make fabulous garden soil and the plants that grow in it would be 75% more drought resistant, PEST RESISTANT, and the plants would grow wonderfully and produce good-tasting fruit.

This is how the ecosystem, the food chain, works!!! Just how in the world do you think people in the past dealt with their own manure??? WE ARE THE WEIRDOS!!! Not the Amish!!!

See humanure.com and learn how the natural world actually works.

I can't believe people don't have even a Biology 101 understanding of life on earth.

Fri, 01/24/2020 - 9:47pm

Agreed. Joe Jenkins' teaching is wonderful. We lived it for three years, used the compost a year later too. More work to be sure, but so much more responsible than sending the waste down toward the water table. The Amish could definitely operate that way, but the almighty international (globalist) codes have no room for wisdom or ingenuity.

Fri, 01/24/2020 - 5:14pm

Seems to me that these folks are leaving less of a "carbon footprint" than the rest of us. Using human waste to fertilize produce that grows above the ground is pretty common practice all over the world. I mean, how much "greener" do you want to get?

Fri, 01/24/2020 - 6:47pm

This is more than just religious discrimination - It also has aspects of Contract law in it. Do the Amish have a contract with the state or municipality? My guess is no, the don't because Amish, well, just don't do that. So if no contract exists for the so called authorities in this case, then the case ought to be thrown out of courst being Ultra Juris or outside jurisdiction.

I on the Amish side for this one

Mon, 01/27/2020 - 6:54pm

Just a thought and add on to my prior comments. I wonder what a water test on an Amish drinking well versus a water test on a neighboring non-Amish drinking well, at the SAME depth, would reveal. Do fertilizers and insecticides count at pollutants? Or are those acceptable?
Double standard? Some interesting questions, from a non-scientist,

Mon, 01/27/2020 - 7:30pm

"Counties" and "States" don't do anything. People do. This is the sole responsibility of Martin Marshall. There were some people in the 1940's who decided to destroy the lives of people who deviated from what was normal for the majority. The life destroyers were called "National Socialists". In the end, the "National Socialists" who were responsible for the destruction were arrested, tried, found guilty, and hung.
"Never do anything against conscience even if the state demands it." ~ Albert Einstein
Are you or your "representatives" threatening someone with an initiation of violence today?