Judge rejects Ohio Amish hate crime law challenge

ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS AP Legal Affairs Writer Published:

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- The religious beliefs of victims of alleged beard- and hair-cutting attacks in Ohio Amish country are what matters in the case, not those of the defendants, a federal judge ruled Thursday in rejecting the defendants' challenges of the federal hate crimes law.

The defendants, who include 16 members of an eastern Ohio breakaway Amish group, argued the alleged attacks last fall weren't hate crimes but internal church disciplinary matters not involving anti-Amish bias. The defendants also argued that the federal hate crime law violates their First Amendment rights of religious expression.

U.S. District Court Judge Dan Polster said the defendants' use of the First Amendment claim was offensive, given that the Constitution allows the defendants "to maintain their religious beliefs and practices, which are so different from the beliefs and practices of most Americans."

"In fact, violent acts of the kind charged in the superseding indictment are designed to punish individuals who exercise their religious beliefs, or to chill others from doing so," he wrote.

Polster noted that First Amendment rights exempt the Amish from certain requirements of citizens, such as jury service.

Attorney Dean Carro argued earlier this year that the alleged "intrareligious actions" aren't covered by federal law.

"The actions are not alleged to have been taken out of prejudice or hatred against the Amish religion," Carro, who represents defendant Lester Miller, wrote in a March filing. "Rather, the alleged acts are doctrine-based Old Order Amish beliefs."

Those beliefs relate to punishment for a variety of sins, Carro added, and as such aren't subject to federal authority. Messages were left for Carro seeking comment Thursday.

Polster also rejected this argument, saying nothing in the law limits its reach to acts of violence perpetrated by members of one religious group against another.

"By the Defendants' logic, a violent assault by a Catholic on a Protestant, or a Sunni Muslim on a Shiite Muslim, or an Orthodox Jew on a non-Orthodox Jew, would not be prohibited by this statute," Polster wrote.

The ruling was the second setback for the defendants this week. On Tuesday, Polster declined to remove language from the indictment against alleged ring-leader Sam Mullet Sr. that Mullet said was meant to smear his character.

Mullet objected to language that alleged he endorsed corporal punishment in the community and that other men's wives in the community were expected to be sexually intimate with him. Polster said Mullet's role in the community is central to allegations he aided and abetted the assaults.

All 16 men and women have pleaded not guilty in last year's alleged assaults.

A feud over church discipline allegedly led to attacks in which the beards and hair of men and hair of women were cut, an act considered deeply offensive in Amish culture. The Amish believe the Bible instructs women to let their hair grow long and men to grow beards and stop shaving once they marry.

Several members of the group living in Bergholz in eastern Ohio 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.

Ohio has an estimated Amish population of just under 61,000 -- second only to Pennsylvania -- with most living in rural counties south and east of Cleveland.

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Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached at http://twitter.com/awhcolumbus