Can the Amish Ride in Helicopters?

Medical evacuation among the Pennsylvania Dutch.

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A gun-toting milk-truck driver attacked a group of Amish girls in their Pennsylvania schoolhouse on Monday, killing five and critically wounding another five. Some of the victims were evacuated by helicopter to nearby hospitals. Meanwhile, police arranged ground transport for the victims’ families, who had refused to fly. Which modes of transportation are the Amish allowed to use?

It depends on the community. Some groups are more liberal than others—the Beachy Amish, for example, can drive cars. The most conservative Amish settlements—called the “Old Order Amish“—have sought to limit air and automobile travel, as well as the use of electricity and telephones, since the beginning of the 20th century.

Each Amish community (or “district”) develops its own, unwritten rules of conduct, called the Ordnung. Representatives from several dozen families meet twice a year to discuss possible changes to the rules, like whether it would be OK to use a machine to cool milk or whether Amish men can go to work at a local factory. If everyone agrees on a new rule, it becomes one of the customs of the community.

In general, the rules about technology are intended to keep the community close together. Most districts outlawed the ownership and operation of cars years ago because they might promote excessive pride and individualism. But none of the rules are absolute religious strictures. In the settlement of Lancaster County, where Monday’s shooting took place, the Amish can ride in cars under certain circumstances, as long as they’re not themselves behind the wheel. Taxi and van services exist around Amish communities, and some bus companies cater to Amish customers. (For a while, a bus called the “Sarasota Express” picked up Amish from the Midwest and took them down to Florida.)

The rules against telephones and electricity are similarly flexible. In Lancaster, phones are allowed as long as they’re not in the home. A group of families might share a single community phone in a shack behind a barn or at the end of the lane. (The rules on cell phones are still being worked out.) Though the Old Order Amish refuse to hook up with the main power grid, some districts allow the use of 12-volt batteries to power small electric devices. Medical researchers who study the Lancaster Amish bring in their patients via car service and outfit them with devices like blood glucose monitors.

The Old Order Amish are less flexible on air travel since it’s not seen as vital to the well-being of the community. In general, you’re not allowed to be a passenger in a plane or helicopter under any circumstances. That said, the community isn’t likely to object to an airlift if it could save someone’s life after an accident. Monday’s shooting victims may have gotten even more leeway to ride in helicopters since they were all young children. The Amish are “Anabaptists,” which means they believe in the baptism of adults rather than infants. Since children haven’t yet been baptized, they’re not fully bound by the rules of the Ordnung.

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Explainer thanks Joel Hartman of the University of Missouri, Diane Zimmerman Umble of Millersville University, and Jameson Wetmore of Arizona State University.