WASHINGTON -- An Amish group asked lawmakers yesterday to relax federal labor laws that prohibit teenagers from working near powerful woodworking machines -- rules they said threaten a cornerstone of their culture.
Critics of the proposal by US Represenantives Joseph Pitts, Republican of Pennsylvania, and Mark Souder, Republican of Indiana, said the changes might be unconstitutional and would ultimately put youngsters at risk.
At issue is the Amish tradition of "learning by doing" apprenticeships -- usually in farming or woodworking -- after completing their formal education at the eighth grade. Over the last decade, federal inspectors have fined some Amish wood mills as much as $20,000 for illegally letting teens work in the same building as the dangerous equipment.
"These are occupations that reinforce self-reliance within our group or community, as well as the work ethic," William Burkholder, owner of an Amish lumber company in Centerville, Pa., testified at a hearing of a House Education and Workforce subcommittee.
The bill would allow youths between 14 and 18 years old who are legally finished with school to be exempt from federal child labor standards -- as long as they do not operate woodworking machines and are supervised at all times. Though the legislation does not specifically mention the Amish, it would give them an unconstitutional exception "simply because of their religious affiliation," said Nicholas W. Clark, counsel for the international United Food and Commercial Workers labor union.