Religious Law

6th Circuit reverses hate-crime convictions of Amish in beard- and hair-cutting attacks

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A federal appeals court has reversed the hate-crime convictions of 16 members of an Amish sect in Ohio accused of cutting the beards and hair of others.

The Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the trial judge had improperly instructed jurors that prosecutors need only prove that the victim’s actual or perceived religion was “a significant motivating factor” for the hair-cutting assault. The appeals court was interpreting the 2009 hate-crimes law, which punishes causing bodily injury “because of” actual or perceived religion and other protected characteristics.

Jurors should have been told conviction required “but for” causation, meaning that the defendants would not have acted but for the victims’ actual or perceived religious beliefs, Judge Jeffrey Sutton wrote for the majority in the 2-1 decision (PDF). The National Law Journal (sub. req.) and the New York Times have stories.

Any standard requiring less than but-for causality “treads uncomfortably close to the line separating constitutional regulation of conduct and unconstitutional regulation of beliefs,” Sutton said.

Prosecutors had argued the defendants were motivated to harm those they saw as Amish hypocrites, while the defendants said the assaults were motivated by a mix of interpersonal issues, including personality conflicts and power struggles.

The decision allows a retrial.

Prior coverage: “Feds Raid Fringe Amish Group’s Compound, Arrest 7 in Alleged Hair-Cutting Hate Crimes”

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