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Mennonite group seeks state relief

January 14, 2000|By LAURA ERNDE

ANNAPOLIS - A local Mennonite group has asked to be exempted from Maryland workers' compensation laws because it's against their religion to collect a claim.

One lawmaker said he might take up their cause.

Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, has done some research on the issue and has drafted a bill. He is trying to find out if there would be support in the Maryland General Assembly before deciding whether to pursue the legislation.

The Washington County and Franklin County, Pa., Mennonite Conference has asked for the state relief.

Darrel Martin, moderator of the two-county conference, declined to speak about the request, but he wrote several letters to Mooney that indicate his motivation.

"We believe that God provides and cares for His people; thus we place our trust and confidence in God rather than depending on the security systems provided by men," according to one letter signed by Martin and two other church bishops.

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Mennonites are conscientiously opposed to receiving life or health insurance benefits or government programs, the letter said. The federal government allows them to opt out of the Social Security program.

Pennsylvania allows for a religious exemption from worker's compensation. The employer has to fill out an application and the employees must agree to waive their rights based on their beliefs, Mooney's research found.

"These Mennonites are good people. Someone's got to stand up for them," Mooney said.

When the issue arose before the Washington County Delegation last year, local lawmakers declined to pursue it because it was a statewide issue.

They also questioned whether Mennonites are united. When lawmakers pursued a religious exemption in the 1997 farm runoff law, Mennonites said they did not want special treatment.

No Washington County Mennonites have sought an exemption from the regulations, which are still being implemented, said Donald Schwartz, Washington County agricultural extension agent.

Close to half of the agricultural workers in Washington County are Mennonites, he said.

Schwartz doesn't know how non-Mennonite farmers will feel about the request.

"There might be a little sour grapes there, but these folks strive to be as self-sufficient within their businesses and communities as they can," Schwartz said. "You have to respect that. If they have no need for these social services, and it is a part of their faith, then they should have the opportunity."

Gerald Ditto, former president of the Washington County Farm Bureau, said he was surprised to hear about the request.

"It seems to me they would be setting themselves up to have an unfair advantage. Things are tough all around. Maybe they're looking for a way to cut costs," Ditto said.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, who earlier this month hosted a forum for local farmers to air their economic problems, said he opposes the exemption.

"There is no reason in the world why they shouldn't have to go through the same regulations as any other small business," Shank said.

Workers' compensation is not just a farming issue, Schwartz said.

There are a number of Mennonite-owned business in the county, such as Martin's Elevator and Copyquik Printing and Graphics.

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