The Mitchell County steel wheels case

by Gary Taylor

Mitchell County, Iowa v. Zimmerman
(Iowa Supreme Court, February 3, 2012)

Members of the Old Order Groffdale Conference Mennonite Church are forbidden from driving tractors unless their wheels are equipped with steel cleats. According to the defendant Zimmerman, the biblical passage from which the rule derives is Romans 12:2, which reads,

And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”

The Order’s members have been using steel wheels for at least forty years, the church having determined that steel wheels would contribute to the maintenance of small-scale farming and help ensure that tractors are not used for pleasure purposes and thereby displace the horse and buggy.  The defendant testified, “The religious practice, it has to be steel hitting the surface, [be] it soil, [be] it highway, [be] it concrete.” Over the years, to minimize possible road damage, the steel cleats and lugs have been made wider and have been mounted on rubber belts to provide cushioning.

For many years Mitchell County (Iowa) officials did not object to the Mennonites’ use of steel wheels; however, in 2009 the county spent $9 million on a road resurfacing project.  The county “white-topped” (covered existing roads with concrete) several roads.  County officials testified that they found that the steel wheels caused pavement cracking, and took the paint off of the white-topped road.  As a result, in September 2009, the county adopted the following ordinance; its stated purpose being “to protect Mitchell County hard surfaced roads”:

No person shall drive over the hard surfaced roadways, including but not limited to cement, concrete and blacktop roads, of Mitchell County, or any political subdivision thereof, a tractor or vehicle equipped with steel or metal tires equipped with cleats, ice picks, studs, spikes, chains or other projections of any kind or steel or metal wheels equipped with cleats, ice picks, studs, spikes, chains, or other projections of any kind.

Violators are subject to a maximum fine of $500 or 30 days in jail, or both.  A civil penalty may also be imposed equal to the amount necessary to repair the damage to the road.  Iowa Code 321.442 contains similar prohibitions on the use of tires with  “block, stud, flange, cleat, or spike or any other protuberances of any material other than rubber,” but the penalty is only a $10 fine. County officials testified that the county ordinance was intended to have identical prohibitions to the state law, but with stiffer sanctions for violations.  Zimmerman was charged with violating the county ordinance.  The district court found that the ordinance “substantially burdened religious practice” but also determined that the ordinance was neutral (treating secular and religious conduct the same), generally applicable, and not motivated by religious animosity, citing the US Supreme Court case Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith. The district court upheld the citation.  Zimmerman appealed.

The question before the Iowa Supreme Court was whether the ordinance violates the religious rights of the church members under either the United States or the Iowa Constitution.  In a unanimous verdict, the Court determined that, indeed, the Mitchell County ordinance violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution (it did not reach the question whether the defendant’s rights under the Iowa Constitution had been violated). The Court found that the ordinance was neutral on its face and in its operation, but that the ordinance was not of general applicability because it contained exemptions that are inconsistent with its stated purpose of protecting Mitchell County’s roads. The county ordinance carried over the exceptions to the prohibition found in Iowa Code 321.442, those being

1. Farm machinery with tires having protuberances which will not injure the highway.
2. Tire chains of reasonable proportions upon any vehicle when required for safety because of snow, ice, or other conditions tending to cause a vehicle to skid.
3. Pneumatic tires with inserted ice grips or tire studs projecting not more than one-sixteenth inch beyond the tread of the traction surface of the tire upon any vehicle from November 1 of each year to April 1 of the following year, except that a school bus and fire department emergency apparatus may use such tires at any time.

The Court concluded that the exceptions that allow school buses and fire department vehicles to have studded tires year-round undermine the purpose of protecting the roads; indeed, this still would be the case  if the ordinance was specifically stated to have the dual purposes of protecting roads and providing for the safety of school buses and emergency vehicles.  Moreover, the County “declined in September 2009 to regulate various other sources of road damage besides steel wheels. Rather, it chose to prohibit only a particular source of harm to the roads that had a religious origin.”

An ordinance can fail the general applicability test and still pass “strict scrutiny,” if the ordinance “serves a compelling state interest and is the least restrictive means of attaining that interest.” The Court, however, also found that the ordinance could not survive strict scrutiny.  Given the lack of evidence of the degree to which the steel lugs harm the County’s roads, in light of the undisputed fact that other events cause road damage, and the undisputed fact that the County had tolerated steel lugs for many years before 2009, “it is difficult to see that an outright ban on those lugs is necessary to serve a compelling state interest.” The Court pointed to neighboring Howard County, where an agreement was reached with the Mennonite community to accept a financial deposit to cover possible road damage in lieu of banning steel wheels, as an example of a less restrictive means of accomplishing the goal of road preservation available to Mitchell County.

The Court reversed the lower court’s affirmation of the citation against Zimmerman, and remanded for entry of an order of dismissal.

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