Ruth Irene Garrett's decision to leave the Amish way of life nearly a decade ago made her more than just an outsider. It made her one of the excommunicated, which a faith famous for keeping its distance shuns even more.
So when Garrett was turned away from an Amish thrift store, its owner called it a case of religious freedom -- because the church teaches that taking money from the excommunicated comes with a risk of followers being thrown out themselves and damned to an eternity in hell.
"Personally, I don't feel like I did anything wrong," shop owner Erma Troyer said.
That confrontation at Troyer's Rocky Top Salvage store two years ago has become a vexing discrimination case before Kentucky's Commission on Human Rights. It tests the limits of how far the Amish can go in practicing their centuries-old faith under the modern-day mores of civil rights.
Garrett has written about the life she left in books such as "Born Amish" and "Crossing Over: One Woman's Escape from Amish Life." She says the shopkeeper recognized her and seemed to take pleasure in discriminating against her, repeatedly saying she could not take her money.
"She just openly embarrassed me," Garrett said. "It was so humiliating, and that really was almost depressing."
The Human Rights Commission heard the case last month, and a recommendation could come early next year. In addition to unspecified damages, Garrett's complaint seeks an order requiring Troyer to serve anyone and training to familiarize her with civil rights law.
Human Rights Commission staff attorney Emily Riggs Hartlage, who represented Garrett, said the incident was a violation of Kentucky's Civil Rights Act for denial of service in a public place for religious reasons. She said the investigation uncovered other ex-Amish who were denied service at Amish stores, and she praised Garrett for having "the courage to stand up for herself and . . . assert her rights."
But Troyer's attorney said the complaint essentially seeks to force the shop owner to violate Amish doctrine, which could result in her losing her religion or her store.
"This puts her in as bad a situation as a person can possibly be in," lawyer Johnny Bell said.
Donald B. Kraybill, an Amish expert at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, said Troyer is not just being stubborn: "She's really trying to be faithful and conscientious to the doctrines of her church, and if she violates them, she puts herself in jeopardy."
Troyer's store, which sells dented canned goods and other slightly damaged merchandise, is part of an Amish enclave of 22 families in south-central Kentucky. Followers wear puritanical black-and-white clothes, drive horse-drawn buggies and lead simple lives driven by hard work in carpentry and lumber.
The store 90 miles south of Louisville was built by Troyer's husband, a sawmill operator who was dying of cancer and did not want his wife to be dependent on others. Now a widow, Troyer relies on the store, which has Amish and non-Amish customers, to support her six children, ages 6 to 16.
Garrett, 31, grew up Amish at Kanona, Iowa, but now attends a Lutheran church in Glasgow, Ky.
Even though she left the faith, Garrett still clings to Amish culinary traditions and likes to shop at Amish stores to buy cooking items and ingredients that cannot be found elsewhere.
"It's my heritage," she said. "It's the way I was brought up -- canning and cooking and making things from scratch. It's the best way you can go."
Garrett said she had been turned away previously by other Amish shopkeepers but did not file discrimination complaints. Most times, to avoid a scene, she was taken aside discreetly and spoken to in a German dialect used by the Amish. At Troyer's store, she said, that did not happen.
Troyer, 41, who had read "Crossing Over," recognized the author from the book jacket and asked if she was indeed Ruth Irene Garrett.
Her suspicion confirmed, Troyer refused to ring up Garrett's groceries. Garrett said the standoff drew attention from other customers. Troyer said she tried to handle the disagreement quietly and even said Garrett would not have to pay for the groceries. And she said it was Garrett's cousin, who accompanied her in the store, who became confrontational.
Troyer explained to the Human Rights Commission that to take the money from the excommunicated would have brought punishment. Initially, she would have been forced to confess openly in church to violating the Amish tenet. Repeated violations would result in excommunication, with everlasting consequences.
"I don't want to feel responsible for doing something wrong, if it can be avoided, from having my soul turned into hell," she said.
Garrett said she hopes for a commission ruling that ends the lingering anxiety among ex-Amish when they venture into Amish stores.
But Troyer said Garrett's departure from Amish life carried repercussions: "She knew this before she left that this was one of the consequences she had to face."