The Iowa Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Mason City Thursday evening on whether Mennonite farmers in Mitchell County have the right to drive tractors with steel wheels on the county roads. Mitchell County banned the steel wheels two years ago, saying a new process used to pave the roads can’t handle them.

But the Mennonites say they use the steel wheels because of their religion and a desire to limit fast travel and keep their community close. A standing room-only crowd listened as the Mennonite attorney Colin Murphy of Mason City argued the county ordinance violates the rights of the Mennonites.

“For more than 150 years the State of Iowa has recognized in appropriate cases and protected the free exercise of religion,” Murphy said. Justice Brent Appel questioned Murphy. He asked if the exemption would tend to subsidize a religious practice, and Murphy says he doesn’t think it does. Mitchell County attorney Mark Walk argued the supervisors have nothing against the Mennonites.

“For decades there was peaceful coexistence between the Mennonite community and the Mitchell County Board of Supervisors,” Walk said, “it wasn’t until 2009 that supervisors considered enacting an ordinance” Walk says they considered the ordinance because of the new style roads that can’t handle the steel wheels. Justice Brent Apple talked about the two issues.

“I think the record’s clear about the religious practice and the burden, what may not be clear is…whether the economic interest overrides that practice,” Apple said. The ordinance was tested after 13-year-old Matthew Zimmerman was ticketed for driving a steel-wheeled tractor on one of the roads.

The justices heard the oral arguments last night and will use what they learned from them along with the written material to make a ruling on the case. The court is hearing oral arguments in cases outside Des Moines in a public relations move after three justices were voted off the court in the retention election. They’ll hear more cases in Carroll on November second.