10/04 Copyright 1993. The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. With Permission. AUGUSTA,

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10/04 Copyright 1993. The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. With Permission. AUGUSTA, Wis. (AP) -- The new schoolhouse is snug and bright. Fifteen desks fill a single room warmed by a wood-burning stove. Lunch pails are neatly lined up on shelves in the entryway. The Amish think it's quite modern enough. But officials in Eau Claire County say that unless the little school adds electricity, exit signs, smoke detectors and a firewall behind the stove, it will be closed for violating state law. This culture clash, which includes threats of lawsuits and arguments about religious freedom, may result in changes to the 1991 law that requires all rural schools to meet stringent health and safety standards. The dispute also is galvanizing this town of 1,500 in west-central Wisconsin. Town leaders say the Amish should be allowed to preserve their simple, unadorned way of life. "I am certain the school is as safe as the one I and my father attended," said Henry Grottke, a 63-year-old farmer who rents land to Amish. "Whatever happened to government of the people, by the people, for the people?" The 100 local Amish families have seven other one-room schools, but all were built before the 1991 law took effect. Last Thursday, a state Senate comittee came to Augusta to hold a public hearing. After taking testimony, the panel voted in favor of a bill to exempt Amish schools from rigid building codes. The bill next goes to the full Senate and could come to a vote late next month. "If they are not a danger, not a threat, not hurting people, why legislate down their throats?" said state Sen. David Zien, who as a first-grader attended a one-room school. The Amish wear plain, dark clothing and travel by horse-drawn vehicles. They shun most modern conveniences and contend that connecting electricity to the school would violate their religious beliefs. The Amish have clashed before with state government over modernities, such as systems to sterilize dairy equipment, permits for outdoor toilets and reflective triangles they must hang on the back of their buggies to designate a "slow-moving-vehicle." Another sort of sign is at issue in the school dispute. The building has just two doors -- one to enter and one that leads to the outhouses behind the school. Neither has the state-required sign identifying it as an exit. The requirement to run electricity to the school strikes the Amish as similarly useless and intrusive.

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