Amish Beard-Cutting Trials Begin

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Ohio has the nation's largest concentration of Amish people, with most clustered in and around Holmes County.(Photo: Flickr)
Ohio has the nation's largest concentration of Amish people, with most clustered in and around Holmes County.(Photo: Flickr)

Members of an Amish church group are due to go on trial Monday in a Cleveland federal courtroom. Prosecutors claim the defendants committed hate crimes against other Amish by cutting off their beards and hair.

The trials are putting a reclusive religious group into the national spotlight.

Sixteen are charged in the attacks which have been described as punishment for critics of Amish bishop Samuel Mullet of Jefferson county in east central Ohio. A man’s untrimmed beard and a woman’s long hair have deep religious meaning in Amish culture, and prosecutor Steven Dettelbach says the assaults violated federal hate crime laws.

“When people try to take away another person’s freedom of religion through violence, that cuts at the core of the rights that we need to protect,” Dettelbach says.

Defense lawyers say that the prosecution will attempt to smear Samuel Mullet’s reputation by introducing evidence that he had sexual encounters with several of his church members in order to exert control over them. They’ve made efforts to bar testimony on these alleged interludes, but Judge Dan Polster has rejected them. He did agree to a ban on terminology that would describe Mullet’s church as a “cult” or a “splinter group”.

Defense Attorney Edward Bryan says he’ll be asking jurors to rule on the constitutional issues at stake, and not Mullet’s personal life.

“Has he made mistakes? Of course he has. And he’ll be the first one to tell you that, but he’s not the egomaniacal person his detractors have tried to portray him as,” Bryan says.

The trial is expected to take two to three weeks.

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