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At a federal court in Cleveland today, 16 members of an Amish sect will go on trial. The defendants are accused of violating U.S. hate crime laws by cutting the hair and beards of community members who challenged the authority of a religious leader. This case has brought something that many Amish try to avoid: attention. From member station WCPN, here's David C. Barnett.
DAVID C. BARNETT, BYLINE: Jacob Troyer brushes sawdust out of his beard as he reflects on the importance of chin hair. He says it's a rite of passage for young Amish men.
JACOB TROYER: When they join the church, they get baptized. They grow a beard up to the, like, bottom of the ear. And then they have an inch or so of space there. When they marry, they grow that together.
BARNETT: Troyer likes talking about the traditions he's grown up with here in Holmes County, where he works as a furniture maker. But ask him about the beard-cutting attacks that occurred here and in several neighboring central Ohio counties last year, and his demeanor quickly changes.
TROYER: I'd say it's a problem.
BARNETT: Troyer waves away the microphone and silently returns to his work. It's a sign of just how controversial this case is in Ohio's Amish community, which is the largest in the country. A recent study by Ohio State University cites the Amish as one of the fastest-growing religious groups in North America. But, by their very nature, the Amish are also one of the most isolated populations. They fought the state over putting licenses and reflectors on their buggies and won the right to pull children out of school after the eighth grade. Sociologist Charles Hurst says they are fiercely independent.
CHARLES HURST: Currently, you see that the Amish want to have as little to do with government as possible. They don't want government aid. They don't want government Social Security. The whole business about licensing on their buggies and education was a conflict with the state that they had to face.
BARNETT: Then, last fall, came a raft of unwelcome publicity when followers of a Jefferson County bishop named Sam Mullet were charged with attacking other Amish by forcibly cutting off their beards and hair. Although Mullet denies being involved in these attacks, he says they were an appropriate punishment for people who challenged his religious authority. The beard-cutting assaults quickly became fodder for late-night comedians. But Charles Hurst says that to the Amish, they were no laughing matter.
HURST: Having a beard is a sign of adulthood. It's a sign of maturity. It's a sign of marital status. So it's a sign of a man being a man. And so to cut the beard is a kind of humiliation.
BARNETT: Such beliefs are at the core of the trial in Cleveland. After several of his followers were arrested for two attacks in October, Sam Mullet told a TV reporter that the police were interfering with the private affairs of his church.
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SAM MULLET: It's all religion. That's why we can't figure out why the sheriff has his nose in it.
BARNETT: The stakes rose in November, when Mullet himself and several others were arrested after another attack. This time, the accused were charged with a federal crime under the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Prosecutor Steven Dettelbach says that's because the scissors used in the attacks traveled in interstate commerce from New York to Ohio.
STEVEN DETTELBACH: The Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Act requires some link to commerce, like laws that require felons in possessions of firearms to possess guns that travel from one state to another.
BARNETT: But some in law enforcement think it's a stretch to put beard-cutting in the same category as murders based on a person's race or sexual orientation. Retired minister Werner Lange in rural Geauga County has long worked with the Amish community and is an outspoken critic of the federal case against Sam Mullet, whom he describes as a strict, if somewhat misguided leader.
WERNER LANGE: This is a disciplinarian that was just trying to impose shame upon the perceived wayward members. You can't do that. You have to have shame come from within. But that's a cultural mistake. It's not a crime, and least of all, not a hate crime.
BARNETT: Prosecutor Steven Dettelbach says the application of hate crime law to this case may be untested, but it springs from a very basic American value.
DETTELBACH: This country has been founded on a principle that what doesn't happen is you don't get a knock on your door in the middle of the night and a bunch of people seeking to attack you because of where you pray, how you pray and who you want to pray to.
BARNETT: And praying is a key issue here. Another question hanging over this trial is whether the hate crime statute can be used in a case where both sides are members of the same religious group. For NPR News, I'm David C. Barnett, in Cleveland.
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