Steel Wheels Keep on Turning

October 26, 2012 | Erika Eckley


The road to peaceful coexistence can sometimes get bumpy. The Iowa Supreme Court recently tried to smooth a rough patch between a County and a religious community. The Court ruled that a county ordinance adopted to protect the county’s newly paved roads violated the Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause contained in the First Amendment.  The ordinance prohibited steel wheels from being used on roadways in the county.

Members of a sect of Mennonite’s interpret scripture as forbidding them from driving tractors unless the wheels are equipped with metal cleats and lugs. They use tractors to haul their produce to market by driving the tractors on county roads. Mitchell County allowed the sect members to use the county roads without incident for many years. In 2009, however, the county spent $9 million on a road resurfacing project that covered the roads in concrete. The steel wheels on the tractors started causing cracks and taking paint off the surface of the newly paved road.

In response to the perceived damages caused by the steel wheels, the county adopted a road ordinance making it illegal for any person to drive a vehicle with metal tires, cleats, chains, or other metal projections on any county road. Violation of the ordinance carried a maximum penalty of $500 and/or 30 days in jail. The county ordinance was intended to mirror a state statute, but included stricter penalties. There was no evidence that the county adopted the ordinance for any reason other than to protect the new surface of the county road. It was even titled, “Mitchell County Road Protection Ordinance”.

Shortly after the ordinance was adopted, the defendant was stopped on a county road driving a tractor equipped with metal cleats and lugs. The defendant received a citation for violating the ordinance. The defendant, a member of the Mennonite sect proscribing to the use of steel wheels, filed a motion to dismiss with the trial court on the grounds that the ordinance violated the defendant’s free exercise of religion as protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution as well as Article I, section 3 of the Iowa Constitution. The trial court denied the motion and the matter went to trial.

After a hearing in front of a magistrate judge, the defendant was found guilty of violating the ordinance. The defendant appealed the ruling to the trial court. A new hearing was held because there was no recording of the evidence presented to the magistrate judge. The trial court held that the county’s ordinance was neutral and generally applicable to the public, so it did not violate the defendant’s free exercise rights. The court also held that the ordinance did not violate the Iowa Constitution. The defendant’s criminal conviction was upheld. The defendant appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court and his application for discretionary review was granted.

Upon review, the Iowa Supreme Court found that the county’s ordinance was neutral in its language and did not specifically allude to the sect of Mennonites that the defendant was a member of, and it was not enacted to intentionally discriminate against the church’s members. The Court did find, however, that the ordinance lacked sufficient general applicability because it burdened the sect’s religious conduct while exempting a substantial category of conduct that is not religiously motivated, such as school buses permitted to use ice grips and tire studs year round. The court also found it to be significant that the county declined to regulate other sources of road damage besides steel wheels.

Because the ordinance lacked sufficient general applicability, the county was required to show the ordinance was narrowly tailored to advance its purpose of protecting the county’s roads from damage. Upon review of the evidence, the Court found that the steel-wheeled tractors had driven over hard-surfaced county roads for years before the ordinance was enacted. Also, the Court found significant the fact that the county engineer was unable to quantify the steel wheels’ impact on the county’s normal repair and resurfacing schedule. The Court concluded that a more narrowly tailored alternative could be developed to allow some use of county roads by the steel wheeled tractors while also recouping costs for damage to the road. The Court referred to an agreement between Howard County, Iowa and a similar sect there to accept a financial deposit in a trust to cover possible road damage. Upon deciding the issue under the United States Constitution, the Court declined to address the question as to whether the defendant’s rights under the Iowa Constitution were violated.

The Court acknowledged that religious rights cases present challenging issues. This case was a “close one” between a longstanding religious practice and a county’s legitimate desire to protect its investment in roads.  However, even though the Court decided the case based on the U.S. Constitution rather than the Iowa Constitution, the Court made no reference to the seminal U.S. Supreme court Free Exercise clause case.  That case, Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.W. 145 (1878), involved the criminal indictment of George Reynolds.  Mr. Reynolds, a Mormon, had been charged with bigamy under the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act for being married to multiple wives at the same time.  Reynolds argued, among other things, that his conviction should be overturned on the basis that the law impinged upon the free exercise of his religion.  The Court disagreed.  The Court distinguished between religious beliefs and religious conduct, quoting a letter from Thomas Jefferson which noted the difference between the two, with religious belief resting “solely between man and his God.”  As such, it was permissible for the government to regulate religious conduct rather than opinions.  That would indicate, as the Iowa  - Supreme Court did in its opinion, that Mitchell County should be able to amend its ordinance in a constitutionally permissible manner with the effect of preventing the use of steel wheels on county roadways. Mitchell County v. Zimmerman, No. 10-1932, 2012 WL 333777 (Iowa Sup. Ct. Feb, 3, 2012).

Note:  On October 25, 2012, the Kentucky Supreme Court upheld a statute requiring a brightly colored, reflective, triangular sign for slow moving vehicles against challenge from two Old Order Swartzentruber Amish. The Amish defendants claimed the bright colors and trinity shape of the required signage violated their religious freedoms to use only plain colors. They also argued that the trinity was not accepted doctrine and they should not be required to affix such signage to their horse-and-buggy units. The court held that the statute applied to a broad category of users of public roads and was necessary for public safety to provide notice of agricultural vehicles and others traveling slower than the speed limit. The bright colors were necessary so the sign could be seen during the day and at night. Because the statute was a valid exercise of government authority and not specifically directed to curtail the religious beliefs of the Amish, it had a rational basis and was Constitutional.  Gingerich v. Commonwealth of Kentucky, No. 2011-SC-000379-DG, 2012 Ky. LEXIS 175 (Ky. Sup. Ct. Oct. 25, 2012).