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Violence Among the Amish

The judges on the Sixth Circuit Court saw Mullet's role within the Bergholz community a little differently. "Even ostensible faith leaders, whether Samuel Mullet or Henry VIII, may do things, including committing crimes or even creating a new religion, for irreligious reasons," they wrote. They pointed to family strain and old feuds as motivations for the attacks.

The legal reasoning in the Circuit Court's decision was pretty technical, but this explanation shows that even the most technical arguments are premised on fundamental views about human nature. Despite the evidence that the Bergholz barbers chose their victims because they were "Amish hypocrites" and attacked with the specific intention of creating religious shame, the judges saw Mullet's charismatic, corrupting influence as separate from his religious beliefs. He was first a man, and only second a man who called himself Amish.

The specific reason they didn't see the attacks as hate crimes turned on a linguistic distinction made by the Supreme Court this year in Burrage v. United States, which clarified the legal meaning of the word "because." According to the statute used in the case, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, a hate crime happens when someone "causes bodily injury to a person ... because of [that person’s] actual or perceived ... religion." "The Dictionary definitions of the phrase reflect this common-sense understanding: 'Because of' means 'by reason of' or 'on account of' the explanation that follows," the judges wrote. But in this case, "because of" has to meet the Supreme Court's "but-for" standard: But for religion, the Bergholz attacks would not have happened. Since the original jury was instructed to evaluate whether religion was a "significant motivating factor," and because the Supreme Court ruling hadn't happened yet, the "but-for" standard wasn't considered. Ultimately, the Sixth Circuit judges didn't think the attacks met the clarified "but for" standard, since there were non-religious motivations for the crime, they said.

"People have this love-hate relationship with the Amish. They articulate what we think were the values of early Americana."

The dissenting judge, Edmund Sargus Jr., disagreed with this reasoning. "Overwhelming and uncontested evidence adduced at trial demonstrated that “but for” the victims’ Amish religion, their beards and hair would not have been cut," he wrote. There wasn't much evidence that non-religious motivations were involved, he argued, but even if they were, it wouldn't matter: Religion was part of the motivation for and nature of the attacks. Or, in mild legalese, "the majority construes the 'because of' provision to require the victim’s protected class to be the but-for cause rather than a but-for cause. This runs afoul of Burrage."

What's most striking is not that religion was involved in the motivation for the attacks—it's that this religion was involved. Everything about this case troubles the stereotype of what it means to be Amish: The violence, the desire for revenge, the attackers' willingness to speak openly to the press about their community. For outsiders, the Amish are always a bit of a curiosity—a foreign community in our midst, seemingly from another time. When they're being accused of committing hate crimes with horse shears by night, they're a spectacle.

"In the American imagination, people have this love-hate relationship with the Amish," Kraybill said. "On the one hand, we esteem them: They have this rural, almost idyllic way of life with a strong sense of family and a strong sense of identity. They’re devout religious people, they work hard—they articulate what we think were the values of early Americana."

"On the other hand, I think we get annoyed about them," he continued. "They’re driving horse-and-buggy on the highways ... They’re self-righteous, perhaps, and they’re not adapting to modern life. They object to high school ... They won’t let women be leaders in the congregation, and on and on."

For outsiders, the whole case is baffling: How could the peaceful, pacifist Amish have done this? Kraybill said. "But on the other hand, perhaps there's some glee. They’re just like us. They’ve got some problems, too. They’re not goody-goody saints like they’d like us to think they are—they can become angry and violent, as well."

Just like us: human, and, as some would say, fallen. Whether the hate-crime conviction will eventually stand is still yet to be determined; the U.S. district attorney's office is reportedly "reviewing the opinion and considering our options." Kraybill said the prosecutors will either ask for a review by the full Sixth Circuit, take the case to the Supreme Court, initiate a new trial, work with Ohio prosecutors to charge them with a hate crime under state law, or just drop it. But the less technical and perhaps more compelling question is not whether these were hate crimes, but crimes of hate. The Bergholz attackers acted out of a sense of moral obligation, yet they ended up causing so much pain—to their parents, to the broader Amish community. The six women who were convicted had 42 children among them; many of their husbands were also given jail time.

At the sentencing, one of the victims' sons, Lester Miller, apologized to his parents. "I didn't want to hurt you. I just wanted to help you. I hope someday you can forgive me."

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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