FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky's General Assembly gave final passage Tuesday to legislation that would exempt the Amish from a longstanding requirement that they affix bright orange safety triangles on their slow-moving buggies.
Lawmakers, in a debate watched by other states with sizable Amish populations like Kentucky, were left to weigh religious rights against traffic safety.
House legislators, voting 75-21, approved a bill that would allow the Amish to use reflective silver or white tape on the backs of their horse-drawn buggies — instead of orange traffic triangles normally required for slow-moving vehicles. The Senate had unanimously passed the bill last month and the measure now goes to Gov. Steve Beshear.
Beshear hasn't publicly signaled where he stands on the bill, which would take effect immediately if he signs it into law.
Several Amish farmers had served jail time in Kentucky for refusing to use the triangle emblems. They objected on religious grounds that the triangular shape represents the Trinity, which they are not allowed to display, and also called undue attention to them against the norms of their religion.
In Amish communities nationwide, fatal collisions between automobiles and buggies aren't uncommon. The most recent one in Kentucky involved a SUV that crashed into the back of a buggy in Cub Run last November, killing the 18-year-old Amish driver, according to authorities. Several months earlier, officials reported, a tractor-trailer ran into the back of buggy near Hopkinsville, killing an Amish child and injuring three others.
Sen. Ken Winters, R-Murray, said he considered the final passage of the bill a victory for religious liberty.
"We've been able to accommodate a major issue in their lives," said Winters, a retired Baptist college president who represents a growing Amish community in his mostly rural western Kentucky district.
Rep. Fred Nesler, D-Mayfield, was the most outspoken of a group of rural lawmakers who opposed the measure. He said that while the reflective tape would work well at night by reflecting car headlights, it does nothing to make the buggies visible during daylight hours.
"My objection to is a safety issue," Nesler said.
Winters said tests have proven that the reflective tape makes the buggies visible up to 1,000 feet away.
Winters said the Amish already have been doing what the legislation requires by voluntarily outlining the backs and sides of their buggies in the reflective tape, as well as putting the tape on the front left corners of the buggies. They've also adopted a provision of the bill that sets parameters for lanterns used on the buggies, requiring one on the left side to be a foot taller than the one on the right.
An eclectic coalition, including tea party activists and religious leaders, had pressed for the legislation.
"It's important to me because, I'm not Amish, but one day the government could attack my beliefs, and I would want the Amish to stick up for me," said Mica Sims, a Lexington tea party activist.