Lawyers for Amish sect leader Sam Mullet and one of his sons have challenged the constitutionality of the government's hate-crimes prosecution of Mr. Mullet and 11 followers, who are awaiting trial in connection with a series of beard-cutting attacks on other Amish across Ohio.
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.
Mr. Mullet, 66, and 11 of his family members and followers are under indictment in Cleveland on charges that they attacked other Amish men and cut off their beards, a symbolic assault meant to denigrate them, as part of a dispute over how Mr. Mullet ran his church in Bergholz, Jefferson County.
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.
Mr. Mullet remains jailed pending trial. But that's the subject of another legal debate in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. The Justice Department wants him to remain locked up as a danger to the community, but Mr. Mullet says he is not a threat to anyone.
The case is on the 6th Circuit's expedited list.
Torsten Ove: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1510.