Civil rights groups want to uphold convictions in Amish beard case


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A coalition of civil rights, religious and ethnic groups is urging a federal court to uphold the constitutionality of the 2009 federal hate crimes law in the case of convicted Amish bishop Sam Mullet and colleagues in Ohio.

The Anti-Defamation League earlier this month filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of 40 organizations in support of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

The Justice Department used that law to convict Mullet and 15 followers of chopping the beards and hair of fellow Amish in a series of 2011 attacks meant to humiliate them for straying from the faith.

Mullet and his followers, all but one related to him, are challenging their convictions and sentences on several fronts.

One of them is that the hate crimes law violates the First Amendment because opponents say it essentially criminalizes thought, long a concern of some civil libertarian groups as well as conservative organizations.

At best, defense attorneys in the Mullet case have argued, the beard-cuttings were assaults to be handled by the local courts, not the federal system.

A second argument is that the law cannot apply to a case in which attackers and victims are of the same faith.

The amicus brief filed March 6 is asking the court to affirm that the law applies in all cases where religious intolerance is the motivating factor.

The Anti-Defamation League was joined by the NAACP, American Federation of Teachers, the Urban League, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and many others.

David Raim, attorney for the coalition, wrote that the law does not infringe on the First Amendment because free speech is not the issue.

Mullet and his followers are free to worship as they wish, he said, but no one is allowed to assault anyone else based on religion.

The hate crimes law also clearly applies to disputes within the same religion, he said.

"[The law] does not and cannot be read to create an exception for crimes committed against people who may share the same faith as the perpetrator," he wrote.

Allowing such an exception, he said, would mean many "bias crimes" would never be prosecuted. In 2012, there were 7,164 hate crimes reported to the FBI. Of those, 19 percent involved victims targeted because of religious beliefs.

Bias crimes, Mr. Raim said, are essentially "identity crimes" intended to intimidate.

He noted that the judge in the Mullet case, U.S. District Judge Dan Aaron Polster, had made the same observation.

"While hate crimes are often committed by members of one religious [or racial or ethnic] group against another, history is replete with examples of internecine violence," the judge said in ruling in 2012 that the indictment of Mullet did not violate the Constitution. "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."

Mr. Raim said the hate crimes law doesn't require hatred of a particular religion but rather that someone was targeted because of religion.

In imposing a 15-year prison term on Mullet, Judge Polster said that was precisely what he did.

"You tried to ram your religious beliefs down the throats of your victims," he said.

At trial, the FBI and numerous witnesses said Mullet had total control over his community, including disciplining its members by putting them in chicken coops and having sex with other men's wives to "counsel" them in marital relations.


Torsten Ove: tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1510.

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