Criminal Justice

How Sam Mullet, the Beard-Cutting Amish Bishop, Got Punished for His Religious Beliefs

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Today Samuel Mullet Sr., the leader of an Amish sect in Ohio, was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison for encouraging his followers to cut the beards and hair of Amish people who spurned his teachings. The series of bizarre assaults, though humiliating, did not cause any serious injuries and probably would have resulted in a sentence of a few years under state law. But Steven M. Dettelbach, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, successfully argued that they amounted to federal "hate crimes," since the victims were chosen "because of" their "actual or perceived religion." The upshot was that Mullet faced a potential life sentence, which prosecutors claimed he fully deserved, suggesting that forcible beard trimming is a crime tantamount to mass murder. Mullet's lawyer more plausibly suggested that a term of two years or less would be appropriate. Since Mullet is 67, there may not be much difference between his actual sentence and the one prosecutors urged.

To federalize Mullet's crime, Dettelbach cited absurdly tenuous connections to interstate commerce, including the beard trimmer, shears, and disposable camera used by Mullet's followers. They were all manufactured outside of Ohio, you see, so clearly this was a case that cried out for the Justice Department's attention. And did I mention that the beard-cutting fanatics mailed a letter at one point and even used a highway (although they never actually left the state)? I got your federal jurisdiction right here.

While that sort of nonsense is sadly familiar, Dettelbach's grandstanding intervention in this case also broke new ground in the indiscriminate and unconstitutional use of federal power. It has always been true that hate crime statutes punish people for their bigotry, since the same actions are subject to more severe penalties when they are motivated by animosity toward the victim's group. But treating Mullet's offense as a hate crime sets another dangerous precedent, effectively punishing him for his religious beliefs. If the beard-cutting rampage had been motivated by political differences, personal animosity, or sheer orneriness, Mullet never would have been eligible for a life sentence. That became a possibility only because Mullet wanted to punish people he viewed as heretics. And by Dettelbach's logic, any assault stemming from internecine religious disputes is a federal hate crime, even though that is surely not the scenario members of Congress had in mind when they passed the law under which Mullet was charged.