A federal judge yesterday dismissed a lawsuit brought by a group of Michigan farmers attempting to stop a national program designed to track and combat disease outbreaks among livestock.
The suit, led by the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, had targeted the National Animal Identification System, which encourages states to come up with systems of identifying and monitoring individual farm animals so that their data can be added to a national database. Judge Rosemary Collyer of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia wrote that the program was not a law, but an incentivized program that states could choose to join or not join.
Therefore, Collyer dismissed the claims brought under laws that govern federal statutes. Without any federal issues, the judge then said she lacked jurisdiction to hear the state law issues.
In making her ruling, Collyer managed to sidestep a host of thorny religious rights issues, which made up a substantial part of the suit.
The case began last year when a small group of farmers filed suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Michigan Department of Agriculture over Michigan’s version of the NAIS program, which requires farmers to tag their animals with radio transmitters.
The farmers, who run small, “sustainable” operations, objected, accusing the USDA of “destroying their pleasant agricultural way of life.” Last September, the group filed a 69-page, 11-count complaint asking Collyer to stop the program, which they said violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, among other federal statutes.
The group, which included two Old Order Amish, a Pentecostal minister, and a nondenominational reverend, said that they believed man was given “dominion over all animals” and that the program stripped them of that power. The suit also said that transmitters would be a form of “taking the mark,” as in the “mark of the beast” referenced in the New Testament’s Book of Revelation.
The complaint also noted a separate problem for the Amish: They swear off modern technology, radio transmitters included. The complaint further contended that the equipment would be too expensive and thus would put the Amish farms out of business. That would pose a problem, since they believe the Bible commands them to be farmers.
As Collyer noted in her opinion, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act only applies to federal regulations (many states have their own versions). Since the USDA didn’t mandate the particular Michigan initiative, she said it couldn’t be challenged under the act.
“Living a pastoral life in the 21st century is clearly a struggle,” Collyer wrote, noting that the plaintiffs’ complaints were “understandable.” But she called their reliance on federal law “misplaced.”
On procedural grounds at least, judges have often seemed less than fond of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — the law that requires them to apply strict scrutiny to every religious rights case that crosses their docket. Senior Judge James Robertson, a colleague of Collyer, once essentially called it a hassle, writing that it requires “the very kind of inquiry judges have tried to avoid since the advent of rational basis review in the New Deal era.”