1984 agreement between Amish and Pennsylvania sets tone for ‘Amish Mafia’ debate

This story was originally published on Aug. 15, 2014 on PennLive.

Governor Tom Corbett made headlines earlier this week when he, and other state and national politicians, called for a halt to production of the Discovery Channel series “Amish Mafia” in a statement issued by the Respect Amish movement.

“Amish Mafia” follows a gang in Lancaster County who “enforce” Amish law and protect the Amish from their neighbors. Experts have continually stated that the show is fake.

While PennLive readers were quick to criticize Corbett for weighing-in on a television series, the governor’s feelings on the matter were nothing new.

The state of Pennsylvania has a long-standing policy regarding the Amish and film companies.

It all goes back to the days of “Witness,” the 1985 film starring Harrison Ford as a cop tasked with protecting an Amish boy who witnessed a murder.

It was called “a high-water mark of commercial exploitation and harassment of an innocent people,” by Amish scholar John Hostetler in a 1985 Patriot-News editorial. The National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom (a group which did not have any Amish members) called for a boycott of the film.

During filming, community attitudes grew so heated that the Old Order Amish Steering Committee’s Board of Directors met with then-Governor Dick Thornburgh’s administration and the Department of Commerce to share their concerns regarding television and film productions about the Amish.

The meeting was held on Aug. 31, 1984. The agreement was written down in a letter to Mr. A. S. Kinsinger, chairman of the Old Order Amish Steering Committee, which PennLive obtained through a Right to Know Request.

The letter contains an agreement that established four things:

1. The Pennsylvania Film Office would not promote Pennsylvania Amish as subjects for movies in its written materials, or in conversations with producers. A brochure saying “Film in PA,” for example, would not include “Make an Amish movie!”

2. The government won’t send scripts about the Amish to potential producers.

3. The government won’t work with companies that trespass on Amish property and try to film them.

4. The Old Order Amish Steering Committee will be contacted if a producer wants to film in Amish areas. The government will also make sure the producer is aware about how the Amish feel about being filmed.

It doesn’t say the government won’t fund projects about the Amish.

The 1984 Agreement does not appear on the website for the Pennsylvania Film Office at all. It is also not referenced in the list of eligibility requirements for the film tax credits. 

Still, the 1984 Agreement still carries some weight, although the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, which includes the Pennsylvania Film Office, stated it had no received any applications for which the agreement would apply.

That includes “Amish Mafia,” which has not submitted for the Film Tax Credit Program. “Amish Mafia” meets the film eligibility requirements for tax credits: it is not a news production, porn or a program that solicits funds (read the full list of eligibility requirements).

However the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development stated “Amish Mafia” would not receive funding even if it did apply for it.

“While we cannot prevent applications from being submitted, the department would stand by the 1984 agreement and the governor’s strong support for the Amish community, and would not approve the application,” said Steven Kratz, director of communications for the department.

It’s a decision that fits with the governor’s opinion.

“The governor is supportive of the Amish community, its values and traditions as well as its contributions to the commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” said Jay Pagni,press secretary for Corbett. “As such, the Governor feels it is important that any depiction of the Amish or any religion for that matter for entertainment purposes be done so in a manner that is respectful and values that community.”

Regardless of Governor Corbett’s feelings, “Amish Mafia” will continue for another season. Season four of the series is slated for a late-winter premiere.

For more on the Respect Amish movement visit RespectAmish.org.

Published by juliahatmaker

Storyteller, journalist and explorer. On a mission to entertain and inform.

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