A community of conservative Christians in Maine has been frustrated by the State’s car insurance mandate.
It’s become such a nuisance that some families are considering relocating to another state, like Vermont, that offers legal accommodations for religious minorities whose beliefs preclude them from using insurance products.
The insurance mandate has already led some members of central Maine’s small community of Mennonites to list their homes for sale.
The Mennonites, like the Amish, are a conservative branch of the Protestant Anabaptists. There are an estimated 2 million Mennonites worldwide, and their beliefs and traditions vary from community to community.
Members prefer to keep a healthy separation from the modern culture. They avoid television and social media, even radio, and they studiously stay out of politics. Unlike the Amish communities of the midwest United States, Mennonites do not refrain from using electricity or internal combustion engines. Throughout central Maine, they have a reputation as skilled and diligent carpenters who can build cabinets and barns just as well as they can fix tractors.
Maine’s not the first state where vehicle insurance mandates have become a thorny issue for the Christian sect. In Georgia more than ten years ago, Mennonites pursued an exemption to the state’s insurance mandates. At the time, community members said insurance is a form of gambling, and therefore using it is sinful and prohibited.
According to Rep. Steve Foster (R-Dexter), however, the Mennonites in his district say not wanting to purchase insurance is more about the importance they place on self-reliance and their desire to stay out of lawsuits.
“For the folks that I’ve represented, there’s two things that I have been told that prevent them from buying auto insurance or any insurance,” Foster said.
“One is they believe that they need to stay out from under the yoke of government, insurance companies, anything like that. They are supposed to provide for themselves. So I think all of them, they have filled out the proper forms and they have gotten an exemption from Social Security, Medicare, any of those government programs. So they don’t pay in and they don’t receive Social Security. They take care of their own,” said Foster.
While some still purchase auto insurance plans in order to abide by the law, many do not file claims even when it would come in handy. Foster said he heard of an example where a Mennonite who was at fault for an accident negotiated a settlement with the other driver that saw the Mennonite community handover $90,000 cash.
Some community members refuse to buy auto insurance, and instead they will borrow vehicles from time to time from relatives. Those who are forced to purchase insurance worry that an insurance company might file a lawsuit on their behalf if they’re in an accident. According to Foster, the Mennonite belief system eschews litigiousness.
This session, Foster endeavored to provide the community with a legal fix to their headaches. He proposed a bill that would have created a self-insurance protocol for qualified religious groups. He’s also worked with Rep. Anne Perry (D-Calais) as well as Secretary of State Shenna Bellows to produce a solution.
Although Maine’s Mennonites are reluctant to ask anything of government, Foster said other residents of the district who used to hire them for projects brought the concerns to him when Mennonites began rejecting new business.
“They don’t look for any publicity on this,” Foster said. “Matter of fact, the folks that we’ve talked to with Secretary [of State Shenna] Bellows and Representative Anne Perry, they said ‘we are not here to demand anything of the state.'”
That Mennonites keep apart from Maine’s broader culture could explain why Foster has faced an uphill battle this year trying to win them some religious accommodation. Unlike other religious minorities in Maine, there are no nonprofits or interest groups lobbying in Augusta on their behalf.
Foster’s bill would have created a protocol for religious minorities to self-insure. When it came before the Health Coverage, Insurance, and Financial Services Committee, it received an “Ought Not to Pass” stamp from the majority.
However, when it came before the House of Representatives, Foster gave an impassioned plea, first to the GOP caucus and later to the full House. After some parliamentary wrangling and an amendment from Rep. Perry, every present member voted in support of an amended version of the bill.
It was a rare display of unanimity in a bitterly divided political body. The representatives even applauded themselves for finding something to agree on. But the watered-down version of the bill wasn’t enough to convince the State Senate, which effectively killed the bill days later.
Foster said Secretary Bellows has told him that they will meet later this summer to discuss a potential compromise that could pass the Legislature in January.
Foster noted that one family had already signed a contract to sell their home, while others had expressed interest in selling.
It remains to be seen whether the promise of future accommodation will be enough to keep the Mennonites here in Maine.