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For richer, for poorer, for sick fish in the bay

March 09, 1998

Tim Rowland

You have to wonder whether some clandestine billionaire goes around paying lawmakers to look crazy or whether they just do it for the recreation.

I am speaking specifically of an amendment to state Pfiesteria legislation that would write a religious exemption into a proposed law forcing farmers to enroll in a tight, manure-management program.

I've heard of people praying for relief, but this is ridiculous.

Scientists think animal wastes may have fostered micro-organisms that attacked some Chesapeake Bay fish last summer. Unconvinced of the feasibility of passing a law to prevent animals from, shall we say, downloading, the legislature is on the verge of a law that would force farmers to take the waste and stuff it up a chimney or something, where it would be of no menace to Maryland waters.

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But Mennonite farmers wouldn't have to comply because - well, no one's really sure why. It seems to have to do with the fact that they may find it disagreeable, since they - well, no one's sure of that either.

Talk about bad precedent. Now if the legislature passes a law against covered dishes it'll have to exempt the Protestants.

Make no mistake, the Mennonites did not ask for this amendment. Nor do they even seem to want this amendment. In fact, from what I've heard, they do not want to be treated differently from any other farmers.

But if this passes, I'll bet you'll see about a thousand secular farmers scurrying into town to purchase a fake beard and a black automobile. Keep an eye on the courthouse to see how many farmers change their names to "Martin" in the coming year.

Here's the logic of the Maryland General Assembly: Mennonites like simpler times. Therefore they like less government. Therefore they may not like this law, which represents more government. Therefore this law should not apply to them.

I don't get it. This is like saying "motorcycle riders do not like to wear helmets. Therefore we'll pass a law saying that everyone has to wear a motorcycle helmet except for the people who ride motorcycles." Very smart.

Lawmakers, of course, seemed to have no idea there was any difference between Mennonites and the Amish. The popular vision around the State House seems to be one of a simple people flailing grain with and oaken paddle and tilling the soil with a pointed stick.

Q. But are we surprised by this?

A. No, we are not.

Because the real issue is even more basic than this, that being that there is no proof whatsoever that a shovelful of manure on a Western Maryland field can kill a fish at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

But because a couple thousand guppies died last summer and a few people peered at the guppies and said "gosh - it's a dead guppy" and got sick, the hand-wringing political types feel an urgent need to "do something" regardless of whether that something has anything to do with the problem or not.

This is like taking your car to the mechanic because it won't start and he changes the muffler.

Make no mistake, I bleed green. I vote for people based on their environmental record. But if there's solid evidence that Washington and Frederick county fertilizer is putting a gun to the head of Charlie the Tuna, then I'm a California condor.

It seems as if the General Assembly might wish to pinpoint the exact cause of the fish kills before it went flicking new laws about like flies off a fruit basket.

I would add two amendments to the Pfiesteria bill. Exempted would be 1. all those who are religious, and 2., all those who are not.

But then those of us who worship at the altar of the Church of Common Sense never seem to have our issues redressed.

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