A horse-drawn buggy is not an automobile.

That observation should go without saying; it’s why cars were called "horseless carriages" a century ago. But is a horse-drawn buggy being driven on a public highway a "vehicle" subject to the same traffic laws that apply to automobiles and other motorized conveyances? And if it is, should there be an exception if obeying the law violates the driver’s sincere religious convictions?

The answers, according to the Kentucky Court of Appeals, are "yes" to the first question, "no" to the second.

Kentucky Revised Statute 189.820 requires that all "slow-moving vehicles" operated on a public highway in the state must be identified with a large, fluorescent yellow-orange triangle surrounded by a dark red, reflective border. The emblem must be attached to the back of the vehicle to warn faster traffic approaching from the rear. The law specifically applies to farm machinery, construction vehicles, and horse-drawn buggies.

Three years ago, nine Amish men were convicted for misdemeanor violations of the slow-moving vehicle law because they did not display the required emblem on their horse-drawn buggies. The facts of the violations never were in question—the Amish drivers conceded that their buggies did not have the reflectors—but the men argued that requiring the emblems violated the First Amendment guarantee for free expression of their religion.

The men are members of the Old Order Swartzentruber Amish religion and they follow a strict code of conduct called an "Ordnung" that governs virtually every aspect of the members’ lives.

The Court of Appeals explained the Amish objection to the slow-moving vehicle emblem: "Among the tenets of the . . . Ordnung are the beliefs that extravagant displays of ‘loud’ colors should be avoided, as well as the use of ‘worldly symbols.’ More specifically, it is believed that the use of loud colors is splashy, garish, and suggestive of vanity, and that the use of worldly or secular symbols encroaches upon their spiritual relationship with God and serves as an indication that the user’s trust in God has strayed to the world at large." Use of the reflective emblem, the men argued, was a direct violation of the Ordnung.

The Court of Appeals determined that the use of public roads is a privilege that can be regulated by the state rather than a fundamental constitutional right, and that traffic regulations are enforced for the safety of everyone. The slow-moving vehicle emblem requirement is constitutional, the court explained, because it is applicable across the board and is a safety regulation that does not directly burden the Amish men’s exercise of their religion.

"Considering the narrow, hilly, winding roads in Graves County and Kentucky in general, small dark buggies being operated at low speeds present a hazard to themselves and others," the court said. "Because use of the SMV emblem, other than on a slow-moving vehicle, is prohibited, the emblem is widely recognized as a cautionary indicator of a slow-moving vehicle."

Alternatives to the brightly colored emblem such as reflective tape were dismissed as ineffective by the court: "The reflective tape can only be seen when it is engaged by headlights. Accordingly, the reflective tape would offer no protection to buggy operators or other motorists during dawn, dusk, and the daylight hours." This was a particular problem, the court added, because of statistical evidence that most buggy-automobile collisions occur during dusk, when most drivers are not yet using their headlights.

Did the Court of Appeals get it right? Should a person’s sincere religious beliefs allow an exception to traffic regulations aimed at making the public roads safer for everyone?