A Sixth Circuit ruling earlier this week is a victory for critics of federal hate crime legislation, as well as the defendants in the case, a group of Amish men and women who forcibly cut the hair and sheared the beards of their Amish victims. The defendants, members of the Bergholz Amish community, admitted to a series of attacks against other Amish with whom the defendants had longstanding feuds. In the Amish community, men wear long beards and women grow long hair as signs of piety and view voluntarily cutting one’s own hair as a sign of contrition. Cutting another person’s hair is a forceful condemnation of the victim. Prosecutors had argued that the defendants assaulted their victims because of their religious identity. The case is the first appellate case involving a religious hate crime brought under The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009. The statute prohibits “willfully caus[ing] bodily injury to any person . . . because of the actual or perceived . . . religion . . . of [that] person.”
In one of the instances at issue, Martin and Barbara Miller’s children and their children’s spouses cut Barbara’s hair and sheared Martin’s beard. The children insisted at trial that they attacked their parents to punish them for “bad parenting.” The kids thought Martin and Barbara were cruel, punitive, and spiteful as a father and mother. The kids did not argue that Martin and Barbara’s “bad parenting” justified assaulting them. The kids only argued that they didn’t attack their parents because their parents were Amish, or even because they believed that their parents’ bad parenting was a sign of them being lousy at being Amish. Rather, they attacked their parents because they believed that their parents were lousy at being parents.
Assaulting your parents in a way that is particularly hurtful to their religious values is a good way to make clear that you won’t be attending the next family picnic, but is it a good way to commit a federal hate crime?