In a courtroom in Cleveland, a federal judge is presiding over jury selection in a federal criminal action. The case does not involve drug trafficking, or terrorism, or any of the other offenses typically at issue in federal criminal cases. Instead, the trial will address the actions of a breakaway Amish sect who disciplined recalcitrant members by, among other things, cutting the beards of Amish men.
The defendants insist their actions in “disciplining” disobedient sect members are expressions of religious freedom, not federal crimes. The federal government says the defendants’ actions are part of a campaign of intimidation designed to humiliate the uncooperative men, because the Amish believe adult males should be fully bearded. The defendants are being prosecuted for conspiracy to commit “hate crimes” in violation of the Matthew Shepard-James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
It’s odd to see the Amish in the news. Ohio has a huge Amish population that is largely confined to remote, rural areas of the state. If you are on a country road it’s not unusual to see a buggy up ahead — but other than that, it’s rare to encounter the Amish. They keep to themselves and tend to trouble no one.
Of equal interest is the question whether the beard-cutting actions of the Amish sect should really be prosecuted as a federal offense. Presumably the beard-cutters could have been charged with assault and battery under state law, if the men who were their victims chose to press charges. Why should the full weight of the federal government be brought to bear against the defendants who did not kill or physically injure anyone — and who, besides, can plausibly claim to be embroiled in a religious dispute, however bizarre the dispute might seem to the rest of us?