Supreme Court overturns Mennonite teen's 'steel wheels' citation

Case centers on Mitchell County ordinance, Mennonite practices

A horse-drawn buggy and a diesel tractor with steel wheels sit side by side. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
A horse-drawn buggy and a diesel tractor with steel wheels sit side by side. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

UPDATE: The state’s highest court has struck down Mitchell County’s steel wheels ordinance, saying “religious rights prevail.”

The Iowa Supreme Court handed down its decision Friday morning.

The case pitted the religious practice of using steel wheels by the county’s Mennonite population against a county ordinance banning use of the wheels on its paved roads.

Matthew Zimmerman, 13, of Orchard, was found guilty in 2010 by a Mitchell County magistrate of violating the county ordinance. He paid a fine, but his family appealed for a dismissal in district court. Judge Bryan McKinley upheld the magistrate’s ruling. The Zimmermans then took their case to the high court.

Colin C. Murphy of Mason City, the attorney representing Zimmerman, could not be reached for comment this morning.

Mitchell County Attorney Mark Walk said he would meet with the media in his offices at 11 a.m.

In its ruling, the high court said the county ordinance violated Zimmerman’s First Amendment rights of the U.S. Constitution. It did not rule on any violation of the Iowa Constitution.

In citing the First Amendment violation, the court said the ordinance does not meet the test of general applicability and that it “does not survive strict scrutiny because it is not the least restrictive means” of addressing the road protection issue.

The court said the use of steel wheels had a 40-year history in the county and it was not until the county began a 2009 paving project —- that has cost $16 million to date -— that the use of the wheels became an issue.

The county board of supervisors adopted an ordinance that they said mirrored an already existing state law against steel lugs except that they imposed stiffer penalties.

While the court agreed the ordinance was devoid of religious references, “we must recognize the ordinance was adopted specifically to address use of the resurfaced concrete roads by steel wheel tractors.

“This is not a case where new activity brushed up against a pre-existing ordinance but where an ordinance was passed to deal with a longstanding religious practice,” the court said.

The court pointed to the ordinance’s lack of exact replication of state law which it said hurt the county’s argument that it was acting neutrally.

“... 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 religious origin,” the court said.

For example, the court said, state law contains various limits on the overall weight of vehicles and also limits weight per-inch of tire width. The county ordinance does not address those issues.

Consequently, the “underinclusion” results in lack of general applicability.

The ordinance also fails the test of least restrictive means, the court said.

While there was evidence presented of damage done to county roads, “The county engineer admitted that various factors lead to road deterioration and he county not quantify the impact of steel wheels on the County’s normal schedule for road repair or resurfacing it,” the court said.

“Given the lack of evidence of the degree to which the steel lugs harm the County’s roads, 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 Howard County’s agreement to accept financial deposits from its Mennonite population to cover road damage as an example of a lesser restriction.

Or, “a more narrowly-tailored alternative might allow steel wheels on county roads in some circumstances, while establishing an effective mechanism for recouping the costs of any necessary road repairs if damage occurs.” Both ideas were suggested during discussions, but not enacted.The Supreme Court remanded the case back to district court.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.