Beard-Cutting Trial Focuses New Attention On Amish

A curious legal case is playing out in a Cleveland courtroom. Sixteen members of a conservative Amish church group are charged with attacking spiritual transgressors by cutting off their beards. The trial has brought international news coverage to the Amish —- a reclusive population better known as a quaint tourist attraction. So far testimony has mixed allegations of sex and interstate crime, with the religious significance of facial hair.

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A curious legal case is playing out in a federal courtroom in Cleveland. Sixteen members of a conservative Amish church group are charged with hate crimes for attacking other Amish by cutting off their beards and long hair. The trial has brought international attention to the Amish, a generally reclusive group.

From member station WCPN, David C. Barnett has the story.

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DAVID C. BARNETT, BYLINE: The modern world continually buzzes by the front window of Amos Miller's modest brick home, which sits along a heavily traveled two-lane blacktop in Holmes County, Ohio. This region is home to the world's largest Amish population and it's a place tourists love to visit.

Miller acknowledges that the Amish have often been viewed as peculiar because of the way they dress or because they avoid most modern conveniences and consciously choose to live a separate life.

AMOS MILLER: We feel that we're called to be a testimony to the world. We believe that God's people are called to be a separate people who live according to the principles of the Bible. We live separately to try to live according to Christ's teaching in a more simple and more uncomplicated way.

BARNETT: But, living by strict biblical guidelines has proven difficult in practice. College of Worcester anthropologist David McConnell says the Amish have always struggled to balance some competing concerns.

DAVID MCCONNELL: You know, for the Amish, it's not only a process of adapting to the outside world and learning how to negotiate with government and state agencies and all of those things, but they also have to negotiate with other Amish groups, internally. And that's also very challenging for them.

BARNETT: A bitter dispute between Amish groups over religious doctrine is central to the federal trial in Cleveland. Sixteen members of a breakaway sect based in the tiny central Ohio town of Bergholz are accused of terrorizing others by chopping off their hair and beards - a profound spiritual disgrace for the Amish. Bergholz bishop Samuel Mullet is charged with orchestrating attacks that U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach calls hate crimes.

STEVEN DETTELBACH: 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.

BARNETT: Mullet's lawyer, Edward Bryan, says his client is the victim of some overblown accusations.

EDWARD BRYAN: And a lot of it's based upon falsehoods, a lot of it's based upon rumor, a lot of it's based upon innuendo. A lot of it is from the mouths of individuals who have personal grievances.

BARNETT: Witnesses have painted a picture of Mullet as exerting cult-like control over his followers. At one point, his daughter-in-law took the stand and tearfully testified that he forced her to have sex with him as a part of what he called marriage counseling. Attorney Edward Bryan doesn't dispute that his client had intimate relations with some married women in the church.

BRYAN: Is he without flaw? Absolutely not. You know, none of us are. Has he made mistakes? Of course he has. He's made lots of mistakes in his life 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.

BARNETT: The trial is just finishing up its second week and will probably go one more. Amos Miller says it's embarrassing and difficult for the Amish to take their disputes to outside authorities, but he's glad it's happening in this case.

MILLER: We regret the fact that it does give a confusing picture to a lot of people who don't understand us and know much about us. And we hope that God will use us in a way that can enhance our testimony and our ability to be a light to the world and a salt to the earth.

BARNETT: It's one more compromise the Amish have to make as they try to both seek justice in the courtroom and live a simple life separate from all of that. For NPR News, I'm David C. Barnett, in Cleveland.

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