The government refused to forgo a rule requiring photographs for documentation.
PITTSBURGH -- Members of the Old Order Amish believe that being photographed is a sin, as explained in the Book of Exodus in the Old Testament, which forbids the making of "graven images."
That's why a Canadian man from the order now living in Clarion County, Pa., sought an exemption to a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services rule that required him and his American wife to be photographed for him to become a permanent resident.
The Department of Homeland Security and immigration officials refused to grant the exception, and the Amish couple has filed a federal lawsuit against the government claiming religious discrimination.
John and Jane Doe
The claim, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court, is listed under the names John and Jane Doe because the couple fears being shunned in their community for being seen as resistant -- another important tenet of their faith.
In the 20-page lawsuit, the two claim the requirement to have both photographed is unconstitutional.
"Moreover, it pressures and coerces them to modify or ignore their religious beliefs, and to choose between John Doe becoming a permanent resident [and ultimately a U.S. citizen] and their faith," the lawsuit contends.
The couple pleaded with the government for months to find some way around the photograph requirement.
The lawsuit notes that though the government will not make an exception on religious grounds, the rule can be waived for people who are old or ill.
The couple -- married June 29, 2001 -- has two children, ages 2 and 4, who are both American citizens.
In Clarion County, the husband is a metalworker and farmer. He is in the United States on a visitor's visa.
The couple filed a similar lawsuit in 2004 that was quickly dismissed when a local judge determined that the husband had no constitutional rights to protect because of his immigrant status at the time.
He was ordered out of the country at that point but permitted back just weeks later on the visitor's visa. The couple began the process of getting him permanent resident status again in December 2004.
Tried to no avail
Since then, the two have provided all of the documentation necessary, including his birth certificate and fingerprints, to have his application approved. They also wrote various letters seeking the exemption to the photograph requirement, but the government has refused their request.
In February, the couple learned that their petition was rejected because of their failure to provide two passport-style photos of themselves.
Old Order Amish believe it is a sin to be photographed, because it is, among other things, prideful.
"Interpreting the Bible literally, they, like other members of their religious community, believe that photographs are 'graven images,' the making of which is forbidden by the Second Commandment," the lawsuit contends.
If they allow themselves to be photographed, according to the lawsuit, they could be shunned in the community.
Photograph is idol
Donald Kraybill, a sociology professor at Pennsylvania's Elizabethtown College who has studied the Amish for more than 25 years, said the objection to photography developed in the 19th century.
"[A photograph] becomes an idol. You hang it on a wall," he said. "It becomes a graven image of worship."
The objection to photography is a social one, as well, he said. In a culture where the community and extended family come first, the individual must be humble.
"You don't do things that call attention to yourself," Kraybill said. "Religious and social principles are at stake here."