Vernon Hershberger’s religious beliefs do not provide any resolution to the legal consequences he must face for operating a food establishment without a license, operating as an unlicensed milk producer, operating a dairy plant without a license and violating a product hold order.
The Wisconsin raw milk dairy farmer therefore will proceed to a long-delayed jury trial expected to take five days beginning May 20.
Hershberger was able to delay the start of the trial when his attorneys began raising constitutional issues over their client’s religious beliefs last December. His attorneys opined that because Hershberger was raised Amish, his natural tendency was not to pursue administrative rights to appeal agency orders because such action would be more confrontational than his religious teachings permit.
As a result, the original trial date of Jan. 7 was postponed so Sauk County Circuit Court Judge Guy Reynolds could conduct a pre-trial hearing on the Constitutional issues in March and this week issued his oral ruling from the bench.
“None of (Hershberger’s religious beliefs) prohibit, on their face, the exercise of any secular rights,” Judge Reynolds said.
In the pre-trial hearing on the issue, state attorneys pointed out that the dairy farmer had already appealed his bond conditions in a criminal case. That was followed by Hershberger’s side, which said his religious tenets only involved civil matters like the hold order issued by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection before criminal charges were filed.
But Hershberger was a party to a 2007 civil case involving an automobile accident in which he filed a 5-page motion asking to have the case dismissed. Reynolds said there was no evidence of “such a religious tenet,” only “the sincerity of the religious beliefs asserted here.”
Wisconsin officials raided Hershberger’s Loganville dairy farm in June 2010. They found sealed containers of food and ordered him to discontinue sales. But the state alleges Hershberger violated the so-called “hold order.”
After the raid, Hershberger is accused of having set up a so-called “buyer’s club,” involving 100 families who purchased raw milk and assorted other dairy products including ice cream. He is getting defense help from the nationally known Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund.
Some experts speculate that jury nullification will be a trial strategy. If the current schedule holds, there will be only one more pre-trial hearing on May 7.© Food Safety News