Sixteen members of an Ohio Amish sect are set to go on trial in federal court Monday in Cleveland. The defendants are accused of violating U.S. hate crime laws by cutting the hair and beards of detractors, a humiliating reprimand for the devout.
Chin hair, according to Jacob Troyer, an Amish craftsman in Holmes County, Ohio, is a rite of passage for young Amish men.
"When they join church to get baptized, they grow a beard up to the bottom of the ear. They usually have an inch or so of space there. When they marry, they grow that together," Troyer says.
Troyer likes talking about the traditions he's grown up with here. But ask him about the beard cutting attacks that occurred here and in several neighboring central Ohio counties last year, and his demeanor quickly changes.
"I'd say it's a problem," he says. Troyer waves away the microphone and silently returns to his work. It's a sign of just how controversial the case is in Ohio's Amish community, which is the largest in the country.
A recent study by Ohio State University cites the Amish as one of the fastest-growing religious groups in North America. But, by their very nature, the Amish are also one of the most isolated populations. They fought the state over putting licenses and reflectors on their buggies and won the right to pull children out of school after the 8th grade. Sociologist Charles Hurst says they are fiercely independent.
"Currently, you'll see the Amish have as little to do with government as possible. They don't want government aid, they don't want government Social Security, the whole business about licensing on their buggies and education was a conflict with the state that they had to face," Hurst says.
Then last fall came a raft of unwelcome publicity when the followers of a Jefferson County bishop named Sam Mullet were charged with attacking other Amish by forcibly cutting off their beards and hair. Although Mullet denies being involved in these attacks, he says they were an appropriate punishment for people who challenged his religious authority. The beard-cutting assaults quickly became fodder for late-night comedians.
But Hurst says that to the Amish, they were no laughing matter.
"Having a beard is a sign of adulthood, it's a sign of maturity and it's a sign of marital status. So it's a sign of a man being a man. So, to cut the beard is a kind of humiliation," he says.
Such beliefs are at the core of the trial in Cleveland. After several of his followers were arrested for two attacks in October, Mullet told a TV reporter that the police were interfering with the private affairs of his church.
"It's all religion. That's why we can't figure out why the sheriff has his nose in it," Mullet said.
The stakes rose in November, when Mullet himself and several others were arrested after another attack. This time the accused were charged with a federal crime under the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Prosecutor Steven Dettelbach says that's because the scissors used in the attacks traveled in interstate commerce from New York to Ohio.
"The Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Act requires some link to commerce, like laws that require felons in possession of firearms to possess guns that travel from one state to another," says Dettelbach.
But some in law enforcement think it's a stretch to put beard-cutting in the same category as murders based on a person's race or sexual orientation. Retired minister Werner Lange in rural Geauga County has long worked with the Amish community and is an outspoken critic of the federal case against Mullet, whom he describes as a strict, if somewhat misguided leader.
"This is a disciplinarian that was just trying to impose shame upon the perceived wayward members. You can't do that. You have to have shame come from within," Lange says. "But, that's a cultural mistake. It's not a crime, and least of all, not a hate crime."
Dettelbach says the application of hate crime law to this case may be untested, but it springs from a very basic American value.
"This country has been founded on a principle that what doesn't happen is that you don't get a knock on your door in the middle of the night and a bunch of people seeking to attack you because of where you pray, how you pray and who you want to pray to," he says.
And praying is a key issue here. Another question hanging over this trial is whether the hate crime statute can be used in a case where both sides are members of the same religious group.