The grocer, the butcher, a cabinet maker and several other members of the town’s Mennonite community are planning to move to Arkansas over a Missouri requirement that all drivers be photographed if they want a license.
The Mennonites — a plain-living sect whose members are similar to the Amish, but usually more worldly — say the 2004 law conflicts with the Biblical prohibition against the making of “graven images.”
“We want to respect our government. We’re not trying to fight them. But we still have our beliefs,” said Ervin Kropf, a bearded, overall-wearing grocer whose market draws customers from miles around for the fresh milk, brown eggs and spices supplied by his fellow Mennonites.
Kropf said he is looking to sell his store. He said if he cannot find a buyer, he will stay in Missouri but rely on someone else to bring in his supplies, because he will not be able to hold a driver’s license without agreeing to a photo.
Around Huntsville, community members say more than a dozen families altogether are preparing to move south to Arkansas, where state law offers a religious exemption to the photo requirement. Other Mennonite enclaves near Rolla, Springfield and Vandalia are facing a similar dilemma.
Missouri had an exemption similar to Arkansas’ for more than 30 years. That changed in the security crackdown after Sept. 11. Now, those who object to the photo requirement can have their pictures left off their licenses. But the photos must remain on file with the state.
Many Mennonites in Missouri find that acceptable and plan to stay put. But “there are a bunch of us who don’t want to do that,” Kropf said.
Maura Browning, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Revenue, which oversees driver’s licenses, said that while her agency is sympathetic, “we are the administrator, not the creator, of state law.”
Some community members call their Mennonite neighbors peaceful, hardworking taxpayers wrongly ensnared in the government’s war on terror.
“This whole business of homeland security is a farce,” said Joel Hartman, a University of Missouri-Columbia professor of rural sociology. “These people are no threat whatsoever to the larger society.”
Hartman estimated the combined Amish and Mennonite population in Missouri at 6,000 to 7,000. That number includes those who drive and don’t object to the state law.
Some are already gone
Several families have already left the state, with others waiting to sell their homes and businesses, said Mark Price, Randolph County recorder. Those planning to leave Huntsville include a cabinet maker, a butcher and an excavator, he said.
“They are pillars of the community,” Price said.
Leo Kempf, a Mennonite butcher, said he has reluctantly decided to uproot his family and move. “It’s something you don’t take lightly,” he said.
Unlike the Amish and members of some other Mennonite sects, Kropf, Kempf and their neighbors use telephones and drive cars, though they paint the vehicles black to make them less showy. They eschew radio, TVs and computers and dress in simple garb — men in overalls and black shoes, women in ankle-length dresses and head coverings. The men typically wear beards.
Community members are intensely private; many politely declined to speak with a reporter for this story.
“These people do not have a strong emotional and psychological attachment to the land that many of us do in society. If things become unacceptable in one area, they’ll move to another,” said Hartman, who grew up in a Pennsylvania Mennonite community.
Pennsylvania and Ohio — two of the states with the nation’s largest Mennonite populations — continue to license drivers whose religious beliefs forbid photos. But other states, including California and Kentucky, have joined Missouri in recent years in eliminating the exemption.
National numbers, other issues
There are an estimated 500,000 Mennonites in the U.S., according to Donald Kraybill, a professor and a fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.
The Missouri Mennonites’ opposition to having their photos taken for their driver’s licenses put them in the minority among members of their faith nationwide, said Steve Scott, a research assistant at the Young Center. “Usually, if you accept a car, you would accept a photograph,” Scott said.
The effect of the nationwide crackdown upon Amish and Mennonites is not limited to driver’s licenses.
Amish who have been able to cross the border into Canada and Mexico for medical treatment or to visit relatives without passports will no longer have that option starting in January. So those who object to having their photos taken for their passports will effectively be unable to leave the country.
And in Pennsylvania, a state law requiring photo identification to purchase guns has prompted many Amish who hunt to hire non-Amish neighbors to buy guns for them, according to Kraybill.