Toledo: A breakaway Amish group accused of settling a score by carrying out hair-cutting attacks against members of their faith moved into the hills of eastern Ohio two decades ago following a dispute over religious differences.
How their community came about is quite common and on the rise among the Amish. Disagreements over church discipline and how to maintain their simple way of life amid the encroaching outside world have created dozens of splinter groups.
But there was something troubling about this one and its leader, according to authorities. They say Samuel Mullet Sr allowed beatings of those who disobeyed him, had sex with married women to "cleanse them”, and then, last fall, instructed his followers to cut the beards and hair of his critics, an act considered deeply offensive in Amish culture.
Mullet and 15 other Amish men and women will go on trial on Monday in Cleveland on charges of hate crimes in the hair-cutting attacks. Other charges include conspiracy, evidence tampering and obstruction of justice in what prosecutors say were crimes motivated by religious differences. They could face lengthy prison terms if convicted.
The defendants including four of Mullet`s children, his son-in-law and three nephews say the government shouldn`t intrude on what they call internal church disciplinary matters not involving anti-Amish bias. They`ve denied the charges and rejected plea bargain offers carrying sentences of two to three years in prison instead of possible sentences of 20 years or more.
Mullet has said he didn`t order the hair-cutting but didn`t stop anyone from carrying it out. He also has defended what he thinks is his right to punish people who break church laws.
"You have your laws on the road and the town if somebody doesn`t obey them, you punish them. But I`m not allowed to punish the church people?" Mullet told a news agency last October. "I just let them run over me? If every family would just do as they pleased, what kind of church would we have?"
The tactics Mullet is accused of violates basic principles of the Amish who value nonviolence and forgiveness even when churches break apart.
"Retribution, retaliation, the use of force; that`s almost unheard of," said Thomas J Meyers, a sociology professor at Goshen College in Indiana.
The 66-year-old, who has fathered at least 17 children, has denied characterisations from authorities that his group is a cult. The hair-cuttings, he said last fall, were a response to continuous criticism he`d received from other Amish religious leaders about his being too strict, including excommunicating and shunning people in his own group.
The Amish believe the Bible instructs women to let their hair grow long and men to grow beards and stop shaving once they marry.