There is an interesting case out of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit this week on the limits of hate speech prosecutions. The court overturned the hate-crime convictions of 16 men and women in a bizarre series of attacks where Amish victims had their beards cut off. It was personal hatred not religious hatred that prompted this Amish on Amish crime in the view of the court. I had previously criticized the prosecution of the defendants under the hate crime law. Amish bishop Samuel Mullet Sr. (left) was convicted in September of organizing a series of raids in 2011 against religious enemies and disobedient family members. This was an intra-Amish dispute in which the men’s beards were forcibly sheared and women’s hair was cut. He was given 15 years in prison for federal hate crimes in an extreme interoperation of the law by the Obama Administration, which claimed jurisdiction in what appeared a state offense. They did so by building the case around the “Wahl battery-operated hair clippers” used to cut the beards of Amish men and insisted that federal jurisdiction followed the clippers which crossed state borders in their manufacturing and sale. The case is United States v. Miller, 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 16532, 2014 FED App. 0210P (6th Cir.).
The court offered the following summary of the facts:
In 1995, Samuel Mullet bought land in Jefferson County, Ohio. That land became the Bergholz Amish community in 2001, when a sufficient number of ordained ministers qualified it as a separate Amish church district. The new community appointed Samuel as its bishop. As bishop, Samuel controlled all aspects of life in the Bergholz compound and had the ability to order the “shunning”—excommunication—of community members who failed to follow the tenets of their Amish faith. R. 540 at 292.
In 2006, Samuel excommunicated several church members who questioned Bergholz community practices and his leadership. Included in the group were Lavern and Mattie Troyer, whose son Aden was married to Samuel’s daughter Wilma, as well as Melvin and Anna Shrock, whose son Emanuel was married to Samuel’s daughter Linda. The excommunications were not good for relationships between and within the affected families. In one case, they led to a divorce. Aden left Wilma to join his parents in a Pennsylvania Amish community after unsuccessfully trying to convince her to join him. In another case, they led to parent-child animosity. Emanuel refused to leave Bergholz with his parents despite their repeated efforts to persuade him to do so.
The Bergholz excommunications also tested church doctrine. Amish communities as a general rule practice strict shunning, meaning that if one Old Order Amish community excommunicates a community member, all other Old Order communities must excommunicate him until he obtains forgiveness from the community that first shunned him. The Bergholz excommunications proved to be an exception. After fleeing Bergholz for another community in Pennsylvania, the Troyers asked not to be subject to the strict-shunning rule. Citing unusual practices in Bergholz, the Troyers asked their new bishop to admit them to the Pennsylvania church without requiring them to seek forgiveness from Samuel—the Elmer Gantry of the Amish community to their mind. Given the number of former Bergholz residents in similar situations, Amish bishops from all over the country met in September 2006 to address the issue. Three hundred bishops convened, and they voted unanimously to reverse the Bergholz excommunications.
At the same time that the ruling allowed the Troyers to settle into their new Pennsylvania community, it also exacerbated a custody battle between Wilma and Aden over their two children. The dispute began when a SWAT team took the children under an emergency temporary custody order issued to Aden. It ended two years, and one trial, later when Aden’s temporary custody of the children became permanent in an order declaring that “[a]ll parenting time shall be in Pennsylvania. Under no circumstances shall parenting time take place in Bergholz, Ohio.” Id. at 152.
Losing Wilma’s children brought the Bergholz community to its knees and sparked a change in their faith-based traditions. Typically, Amish men do not trim their beards and Amish women do not cut their hair as a way of symbolizing their piety, demonstrating righteousness and conveying an Amish identity. Believing that the loss of Wilma’s children resulted from their lack of faith, several Bergholz residents cut their own hair and trimmed their own beards as a way to atone for their sins. The Bergholz community saw these acts as penance and as a symbol of rededication to their faith.
The Bergholz community did not confine this ritual to their own ranks. They also used it to punish or harm others who were not members of the church district. From September 6 to November 9, 2011, several Bergholz community members committed five separate attacks on nine different individuals, slicing off the men’s beards and cutting the women’s hair. Religious and personal ties connected the nine victims of these attacks to the Bergholz community. Some were parents of Bergholz residents, some were friends, and some were associated with family members who had left Bergholz for other Amish districts. Also linking the victims was that they participated in overturning the Bergholz excommunications and that, in the eyes of the assailants, they were “Amish hypocrites.” R. 539 at 35; R. 540 at 11-12.
U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach and the Obama Justice Department adopted a sweeping interpretation of federal jurisdiction and the hate speech law to grab the case. The 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act requires “an instrumentality of interstate or foreign commerce.” So, Dettelbach argued that the clippers used in the assaults “were purchased at Walmart and had travelled in and affected interstate commerce in that they were manufactured in Dover, Delaware.” The district court accepted the argument which would render any limits on federal power meaningless for the purposes of federalizing what are state crimes. They also argued that, since these acts were based on religion, they could be classified as hate crimes. In addition to Mullett, fifteen other Amish members were sentenced to prison terms of two to seven years.
However, since the federal hate-crime statute prohibits “willfully caus[ing] bodily injury to any person . . . because of the actual or perceived . . . religion . . . of [that] person,” 18 U.S.C. § 249(a)(2)(A), there is the question of intent behind the attack. In addressing one of the attacks, the court rejected the theory of the government and even compared Mullet to Henry VIII:
Did some of this strife stem from religious discord? No doubt. But untangling the role of religion, family, personality and other issues in the assaults was the point of the trial. Just because the Millers and their children disagreed about the tenets of their religion and how to practice it does not make the Millers’ religious beliefs a but-for cause of their children’s attack on them. A failure of a child to meet the expectations of a parent (or the reverse)—whether those expectations stem from faith, tradition, vanity, familial hierarchy or something else—is hardly an unusual source of discord between parents and children. . . .
Keep in mind, moreover, what happened in this case. Despite the presence of beard cutting in all five indicted assaults under the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the jury convicted the defendants of only four hate-crime violations. We will never know why the jury did what it did. But the mixed verdict casts some doubt on the idea that a faith-inspired manner of assault necessarily equals a faith-inspired motive for assault.
Nor is it fair to say that, because faith permeates most, if not all, aspects of life in the Amish community, it necessarily permeates the motives for the assaults in this case, no matter how mundane the personal, power, or getting-one’s-way disputes that formed the backdrop to these assaults. Even people of the most theocratic faith may do things—including committing crimes—for non-faith-based reasons. And even ostensible faith leaders, whether Samuel Mullet or Henry VIII, may do things, including committing crimes or even creating a new religion, for irreligious reasons.
The court makes a valuable point that, in a deeply religious community, many disputes will necessarily have religious overtones or contributing factors.
District judge Sargus (sitting by designation on the appellate panel) dissented and objected to the panel adopting SARGUS, District Judge, dissenting.
This is the first appellate case involving a religious hate crime under the Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, 18 U.S.C. § 249. While I respect the majority’s efforts to construe a deceivingly simple, but actually complex, statute, I dissent. In my view, the majority has adopting “an unduly restrictive interpretation of the statute.” Of course, the interpretation of the Obama Administration of both jurisdiction and the statute itself would allow virtually any attack within a religious community to be classified as a hate crime. The concern among civil libertarians has long been that the hate crime statute would be used to simply secure high sentences for acts that were long prosecuted under simple assault and battery claims. We have also discussed how the expansion of these laws in the United States and abroad have created a threat to free speech.
The curtailment of the statute, even in this limited circumstance, therefore, is likely to be welcomed by many in the civil liberties community. However, the Obama Administration is considering an appeal.
Here is the opinion: United States v. Miller