State set to create ID cards without pictures for Amish and Mennonite communities

By: - March 8, 2019 5:30 am

MECHANICSVILLE, MD – JANUARY 21: A horse pulls an Amish buggy during a snowfall January 21, 2014 in Mechanicsville, Maryland. A strong winter storm is bearing down on the East Coast between Virginia and Massachusetts and could dump four to eight inches of snow on the Washington area. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Old Order Mennonites dress plain, rely on horse and buggies for transportation and, for the most part, don’t want their picture taken.

It’s meant most members of the community don’t have state-issued identification cards – a situation Virginia is set to remedy this year with the passage of legislation allowing IDs without pictures for the first time.

“We see a photo as a graven image, which is forbidden in the scriptures,” says a buggy maker who lives in a Mennonite community of just under 1,000 outside of Harrisonburg. He requested that his name not be used because, as he put it, “we try not to stand out; we try to blend in.”

While they’ve lived without IDs here for more than 100 years, it’s increasingly created problems.

The Rockingham resident said on a recent visit to Walmart, a clerk wouldn’t sell him cold medicine. He said another member of the community ran into issues trying to get UPS to pick up a package from the hardware store. And he said his uncle recently had a run-in at a major appliance store when he tried to write a check for a new refrigerator. (The community practices “plainness” but does not totally eschew modern technology.)

It goes on and on, he said: “We can’t even donate blood.”

The community asked Del. Tony Wilt, R-Rockingham, to pursue pictureless IDs last year, prompting a DMV study that found an estimated 2,000 Old Order Mennonite and Old Order Amish people living in the state would qualify for and likely seek out the IDs.

Virginia localities with Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonite populations that do not allow photos of themselves to be taken for religious reasons. (Virginia DMV)

Thirteen states with large Mennonite and Amish populations already offer the IDs for religious reasons, the largest of which is Pennsylvania. The state issued 13,560 such credentials, Virginia’s DMV study found.

The legislation passed the General Assembly without much debate this year, largely because Wilt said the communities agreed to pay a higher fee ($80) for the cards, which the DMV estimates will entirely cover the $275,000 cost of producing them.

“It’s zero cost,” Wilt said.

The governor has recommended a minor technical amendment, but it’s not expected to be a barrier to the bill’s ultimate passage.

The cards are not valid for voting or driving. There’s been discussion of using a security question that the holder knows the answer to as a step to allow police to verify that the person holding the card is the person to whom it was issued, but the DMV said fraud cases have been rare in other states.

“We are pleased to meet the needs of these customers,” said Brandy Brubaker, a spokeswoman for the department.

A sample of a proposed Virginia ID card without a photograph. (Virginia DMV)

The Rockingham resident said officials have told him they plan to bring a mobile DMV customer service center in July when the law become effective.

“That way horse-drawn people can access it,” he said.

If you’re curious: the community does tolerate some photography. For instance, they’ll get X-rays and MRIs. And they recognize that other people (and security cameras) might take their pictures.

“But we don’t pose and smile sweetly while it all gets done,” he said. “There’s a saying that you can’t keep the birds from flying overhead but you can stop them from building a nest in your hair.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.