Lawyers claim hate crimes prosecution of Amish beard cutting clan is unconstitutional

Religion News Blog — Lawyers for Amish sect leader Sam Mullet, who is accused of instigating beard- and hair cutting attacks against mainstream Amish men and women, have challenged the constitutionality of the Federal government’s hate-crimes prosecution of Mr. Mullet and 11 of his followers.

Last December Mullet and his followers were charged with hate crimes in the bizarre beard-cutting attacks on other members of the sect in eastern Ohio.

In October Mullet told The Associated Press that he did not order the hair-cutting attacks but that he also did not stop his sons and others from carrying them out. He said the goal of the hair-cutting was to send a message to Amish that they should be ashamed of themselves for the way they were treating him and his community.

The Associated Press noted that cutting the hair is a highly offensive act to the Amish, who believe the Bible instructs women to let their hair grow long and men to grow beards and stop shaving once they marry.

Mullet and his small group of followers — whose compound was raided by authorities last November — also face charges of conspiracy, assault and tampering with evidence in the case, the Department of Justice has said.

Each defendant faces five years in prison if convicted of conspiracy, but hate crime charges could result in a life sentence.


The Pittsburg Post-Gazette says

J. Dean Carro, head of the appellate division of the University of Akron’s law school, and Wendi Overmyer, a federal public defender, asked a judge to throw out the case because they say Congress exceeded its authority in passing the Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009.

They also argued that even if the law itself is constitutional, it does not apply to a dispute within a religion, as the beard-cuttings have been portrayed by the Justice Department and by Mr. Mullet himself. […]

Ms. Overmyer, who represents Mr. Mullet, and Mr. Carro, who represents one of his sons, Lester Mullet, said the Hate Crimes Prevention Act violates the constitution because hate crimes do not affect interstate commerce.

The lawyers also said the statute should not apply in the Mullet case because the offenses all occurred within Ohio, which has the authority to prosecute hate crimes under its own laws.

The beard-cuttings are “at most an assault between private persons,” the lawyers wrote in accusing the Justice Department of overreaching.

They also said one of the purposes of the Hate Crimes act was to protect people within a minority religion from the actions of those on the outside. But the Mullet prosecution only involves those within the same religion.

“The actions alleged in this case are not alleged to be the result of anti-Amish bias,” the lawyers said.

Should the case be allowed to stand, they argued, it could have a “chilling effect” on freedom of religion and freedom of speech, something they said some members of Congress warned about during the debate leading to the passage of the law.

A former member of the group says Sam Mullet moved with some 120 fellow Amish to Bergholz, Ohio, some 15 years ago. Some media reports have referred to the group as the ‘Bergholz Clan.’

The former member has compared the sect to the Peoples Temple cult, whose leader was Jim Jones. In 1978, the cult ended in a mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana.

According to the FBI affidavit Mullet ran his 800-acre sect in Bergholz with an iron hand.

He took the married women from the sect into his home “so that he may cleanse them of the devil with acts of sexual intimacy,” the affidavit said.

He also forced members to sleep for days at a time in a chicken coop on his property and allowed some members to beat others who appeared to disobey Mullet’s rule.

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This post was last updated: Mar. 7, 2012