By Kevin Williams
Yesterday a sharply divided U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati overturned the hate crime convictions of Amish beard cutters from Bergholz.
I've read the entire 35 page opinion and it does raise some interesting issues.
I've always had problems with "hate crime" statutes. "Hate", to my uninformed opinion, seems to be an emotion. So how can one criminalize an emotion? Acting on that emotion in a criminal way is another matter, but if it is a "criminal way", then the actions themselves would be subject to punishment, not the emotion underlying them. I think few of us embrace hate as a good thing, but humans have emotions and I think trying to legislate them and criminalize them is a slippery slope. So,back to Bergholz, the issue at hand pivots on instructions given to the jury. Mullet's attorneys wanted a clear causation "Mullet committed the crimes because of religion." The government wanted a lower standard, that religion was a "significant motivating factor" in committing the crimes. This lower standard was the one adopted at trial and the appeals court found it set the bar too low for conviction.
The judges wrote:
"For the defendants’ actions to amount to a federal hate crime, though, the prosecution had to show that the defendants assaulted the victims and that they assaulted the victims “because of” their religious beliefs. Any standard that requires less than but-for causality, moreover, treads uncomfortably close to the line separating constitutional regulation of conduct and unconstitutional regulation of beliefs. "
I think the judges made the correct call here. No one argues that the Bergholz group committed egregious acts and I think they should be punished, but not under a "hate crime statute."
As the trial illustrated, there were a mix of factors motivating the attacks, a tangled web of family, history, and religious reasons. Trying to separate out which was which is a near impossibility. The court writes:
" Did some of this strife stem from religious discord? No doubt. But untangling the role of religion, family, personality and other issues in the assaults was the point of the trial. Just because the Millers and their children disagreed about the tenets of their religion and how to practice it does not make the Millers’ religious beliefs a but-for cause of their children’s attack on them. "
The court's dissenting judge argued that the attacks, by Mullet's own admission, were religiously motivated and therefore met the standard of "hate crime."
Interestingly, the court left alone one issue that could have been central to this: were the Bergholz Amish even "Amish" anymore? That I suppose could have been a separate trial, but to me the question is important. Can anyone start a religion? (our religious freedoms dictate the answer is likely "yes") But if I want to start my own Amish church, and I want to keep my car, computer, and electricity, can I still call myself Amish, perhaps the "New Modern Amish Church?" Yes, I probably could. Other Amish bishops wouldn't likely fellowship with me and I'd be a pariah but I could still refer to myself as Amish, right? That, to me, muddies the issue a bit and is interesting. Because an "Amish on Amish" attack isn't a hate crime, but a non-Amish on Amish is? What about a Mennonite on Amish crime? Or a Beachy Amish or Amish? That, to me, is why hate crimes are a slippery slope, where does one draw the line? Criminalize conduct, not beliefs. And Mullet's criminal conduct, if he committed crimes, should be sufficient to keep him behind bars without injected hate into it.