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Constitutionality of law challenged in Ohio beard-cutting case

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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

In an effort to end an Amish debearding case before trial, lawyers for a dissident Ohio group and its leader want a judge to find the federal hate-crimes law unconstitutional based, in part, on religious grounds.

"If the court agrees, perhaps a remedy would be that this case would go away," J. Dean Carro, a defense lawyer in the case and law professor at the University of Akron, said on Tuesday.

In a motion filed pm Monday, the defense asked U.S. District Judge Dan A. Polster of Cleveland to dismiss charges against Samuel Mullet Sr., 66; his nephew, Lester Mullet, 37; and 10 others. Their request is based, among other things, on grounds that the Hate Crimes Prevention Act cannot be applied to "religious activity under the First Amendment, and specifically, as to actions between private parties within the same religion."

Carro represents Lester Mullet. Sam Mullet is represented by federal public defender Wendi Overmyer, who could not be reached.

In December, a federal grand jury indicted Sam Mullet and 16 other members of his Amish community outside Bergholz, Ohio, about 60 miles west of Pittsburgh, in at least four beard- and hair-cutting attacks. Prosecutors claim the attacks were intended as revenge on mainstream Old Order Amish who previously tried to excommunicate Sam Mullet for his unorthodox behavior.

Federal prosecutors had no comment "beyond the fact that we have every confidence that the law is constitutional," said Michael Tobin, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Cleveland.

Charles Haynes, a Washington-based religious freedoms expert with the First Amendment Center, said he knows of no other constitutional challenges to the hate-crimes statutes citing religious protections under the First Amendment.

"It sounds to me like this is a pretty big stretch, but you never know what a court might do," Haynes said. "I'm not sure religious protections extend to alleged crimes."

Hate crimes prosecuted so far under the law have been race-related, not inter-religious disputes between private parties, defense attorneys noted in their filing.

"I don't know of any cases like this," Carro said. "As far as our research, there are no others."

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