On Friday a federal judge in Ohio will sentence an Amish sect leader and his followers for cutting the hair and beards of other fellow Amish. Despite the lack of finality at the trial court, attorneys have already said the case will be appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. This criminal case involves a federal hate crime law and the extent of power Congress has to regulate interstate commerce. Lawyers for the Amish sect leader Samuel Mullet Sr. challenge the constitutionality of part of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act that was used to charge nearly a dozen of Mullet’s followers after a series of forced beard cuttings that took place in 2011 in rural Ohio.
Mullet, as well as many of his followers, pleaded not guilty to charges involving attacks on fellow Amish men and women who allegedly disagreed with Mullet. The group was ultimately found guilty of federal hate crimes and conspiracy charges. They are to be sentenced Friday in U.S. District Court. The government has asked for a sentence of life imprisonment for Mullet in court documents filed this week.
Prosecutors argued that the defendants targeted their victims because of the spiritual importance of their hair and beards. In the Amish faith, men growing their beards and women growing their hair has a special significance. Amish men let their beards grow once they are married, believing the Bible views cutting the hair as degrading or humiliating.
The defendants have already announced that they are appealing their convictions to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals regardless of Friday's sentencing, arguing that the Court should overturn their convictions. Attorneys for the Amish defendants claim the federal hate crime law that the charges were based on was passed by Congress with only a weak link to interstate commerce. This link allowed federal prosecutors to pursue cases, like this one, that would ordinarily be left to local authorities. The defense will cite how prosecutors used the fact that the attackers hired drivers to travel to various locations to cut the men’s beard as a tie to interstate commerce. Also, prosecutors relied on the fact that the scissors used to cut the beards were originally manufactured in New York.
The defendants have made clear that they will argue that the Hate Crimes Prevention Act exceeds Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause because the activity regulated does not have a substantial effect on interstate commerce. This case concerning forced beard cutting hardly will present the Sixth Circuit with a chance to grapple with the scope of Congress’ power under the commerce clause.
(Lee Davis is a Chattanooga attorney who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 266-0605.)