Prosecution of sect leader unconstitutional, lawyers say

March 6, 2012 3:25 pm

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An Ohio law school professor and a lawyer for Amish sect leader Sam Mullet have challenged the constitutionality of the government's hate-crimes prosecution of Mr. Mullet and his followers, who are awaiting trial in connection with a series of beard-cuttings of 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.

They also argue 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.

Mr. Mullet, 66, and 11 of his family 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 and community in Bergholz, Jefferson County.

Ms. Overmyer, who represents Mr. Mullet, and Mr. Carro, who represents Lester Mullet, one of his sons, said the hate-crimes statute violates the constitution because hate crimes do not affect interstate commerce.

The lawyers also argue that the statute should not apply in the Mullet case because the offenses all occurred within Ohio, which has the authority to prosecute under its own hate-crimes law.

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 Prevention 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, any religious leader could be prosecuted federally for actions in imposing religious rules on followers.

Torsten Ove: tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1510.
First Published 2012-03-06 12:08:15

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