When Is A Beard Just A Beard?



By Thomas J. Whitley

On February 8, 2013 Samuel Mullet Sr, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for a spate of 2011 beard-cutting attacks. Mullet was the leader for a group of 16 men and women that attacked fellow Amish, holding them down and cutting their hair and their beards. This week Mullet’s sentence was reduced to 10 years and 9 months and the sentences of the others were reduced to 3 1/2 or 5 years. This comes after the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the jury was given incorrect instructions and the hate-crime portion of the convictions was thrown out. The jury was instructed “that the faith of the victims must be a ‘significant factor’ in motivating the assaults” when, according to Judge Sutton, they should have been instructed that religion must have been the “but for” factor.

While the decision was ultimately made on procedural grounds, the hate-crime question still looms large. As Judge Sutton wrote in his decision, “the central issue at trial was whether the defendants committed the assaults ‘because of’ the religion of the victims.” While Sutton did not ultimately rule on this particular question, the debate around this question has been heated. Can one commit a hate crime against a member of their own religious group? How are outsiders to judge internal disputes? While the precise nature of the attacks seems to have been “religious” in nature (cutting the hair and the beard, important Amish symbols), was religion the “but for” cause of the attacks? In taking up such questions, the Sixth Circuit judges have taken it upon themselves to determine just how “religious” the attacks were.

In his re-sentencing, Judge Polster said that he was still convinced that the attacks were “substantially motivated by the victims’ religion.” The question remains, though, when an act becomes “religious.” A fraternity hazing ritual in which pledges’ heads and beards are shaved would not be considered by most to be a “religious” act. So, is it the simple fact that the hair and beard are given special significance in the Amish community that make them religious symbols? Would the Mullet attacks be more easily recognizable as hate crimes if, say, the victims were non-Amish bearded men and their beards were clipped because they were not Amish?

When we take a step back we begin to see the work that must be done to classify acts as “religious” or “non-religious,” as hate crimes or as simple assaults. These categories are neither value neutral nor given. How we construct these categories as a society, though, have consequences not just on how we see the world but also on how we punish our citizens. Mullet’s sentence was cut by almost 1/3 once his actions were no longer deemed “hate crimes,” yet the actual crime committed did not change. The victims’ beards were sacred one moment and quite mundane the next.

So when is a beard just a beard and when is it sacred? Apparently, that all depends on the instructions given to a jury.