U.S. Justice Department says hate crime charges OK in Amish beard-cutting attacks

The U.S. Justice Department says the prosecution of Amish sect leader Sam Mullet and 15 of his followers in Ohio under the federal hate crimes statute does not violate the U.S. Constitution and should proceed.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports

Lawyers for Mr. Mullet, 66, and the other defendants — charged in Cleveland with orchestrating a series of beard-cutting attacks on other Amish — have argued that the government’s case should be dismissed because they say the 2009 Hate Crimes Prevention Act should not apply to a dispute within a religion.

The lawyers also have said that Congress exceeded its authority in passing the law and that it violates the Constitution because hate crimes don’t affect interstate commerce.

Justice Department lawyers have fired back, saying the defendants “were properly indicted under the act” and that the law “represents a proper exercise of Congressional authority to enact legislation” to prosecute crimes motivated by bias.

“The [act] is aimed at preventing bias-motivated violent assaults, including religiously motivated assaults, a problem of national significance,” the Justice Department wrote in a response brief in U.S. District Court in Cleveland.

Government lawyers said Congress passed the law to expand the federal government’s power to prosecute bias-motivated crimes by exercising jurisdiction more broadly than in earlier statutes aimed at similar conduct.

The Hate Crimes Prevention Act, they said, is a “valid exercise” of Congressional authority consistent with both the Commerce Act and the First Amendment and “properly applies to conduct at issue in this case.”

The attacks — in which the beards and hair of men and hair of women were cut — are believed to be part of a a feud over church discipline. Cutting off someone’s hair is considered deeply offensive in Amish culture.

According to the initial hate crimes indictment and an earlier FBI search-warrant affidavit, Mullet and his followers were motivated by revenge, says The Plain Dealer. The documents say Mullet was angry that other Amish bishops refused to accept his excommunication of members who had chosen to leave Mullet’s group.

WKSU notes

The Justice Department [says] the law was designed to protect freedom of speech and religion, but definitely includes religiously motivated violent assaults.

It says these assaults were, quote, “designed to destroy the very essence of the victims’ Old Order Amish religious faith.”

The hate crimes act was named for Matthew Shepard, a student perceived to be gay who was tortured and murdered, and James Byrd, a black teenager who was beheaded by white supremacists.

The Associated Press says

Sixteen Amish men and women face arraignment Thursday in federal court on charges involved in beard- and hair-cutting attacks against fellow Amish in Ohio.

An updated indictment filed last month added new allegations that the suspects tried to hide or destroy evidence, including a disposable camera, shears and a bag of hair from the victims. [...]

The updated indictment also charges alleged ringleader Sam Mullet Sr. with lying to federal agents during their investigation by denying knowledge of an October assault. [...]

The new charges also allege defendants used a disposable camera bought at Walmart to take pictures of the victims, then hid the camera from authorities until eventually turning it over on March 16.

Several members of the group living in Bergholz carried out the attacks in September, October and November by forcibly cutting the beards and hair of Amish men and women and then taking photos to shame them, authorities have said.

Mullet told The Associated Press in October that he didn’t order the hair-cutting but didn’t stop his sons and others from carrying it out. He said the goal was to send a message to other Amish that they should be ashamed of themselves for the way they were treating Mullet and his community.

A previous report details the reasons behind the beard- and hair cutting attacks, and also addresses alleged abuses within Samuel Mullet’s so-called Bergholz Clan.
Read the updated indictment

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