When is cutting someone’s beard a hate crime worthy of a life sentence? When the federal government says so.

Sixteen members of an Amish community in Bergholz, Ohio, were convicted of hate crimes for a hair- and beard-cutting attack on other Amish in fall of 2011.

Prosecutors charged them for hate crimes because hair has spiritual significance for the Amish, who believe the Bible instructs men to stop shaving once they marry.

The haircuts were meant to shame fellow Amish for straying from religious guidelines. The defendants argued the government was wrong to intervene in what was a family or church dispute.

The 16 men and women were convicted in Cleveland last year of charges including conspiracy, assault, hiding evidence and hate crimes.

Instead of the life sentence recommended by the government, a federal judge sentenced community leader Bishop Samuel Mullet to 15 years in prison. The judge sentenced 15 of Mullet’s followers to two-to-seven years in prison, including six women.

Now, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons says eight of the 10 men have been assigned to prisons across the country.

Steven Dettelbach, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, said, “It sends a message that the judge agreed that these were extremely serious crimes that require similarly serious sentences.”

Edward Bryan, the attorney who represented Mr. Mullet, said, “I was relieved that the judge didn’t follow the government’s recommendation for a life sentence, though I still believe the judge’s sentence was way too much.”

Bryan said a personal dispute should not have been turned into a federal crime, much less a hate crime.

“There was overkill involved in this case,” he argued. “The government had no business getting involved in this case the way they did. To justify it, they did everything they could to make a boogey man out of my defendant. He’s actually the opposite. He’s a decent, loving man.”

Even a spokesman for one of the nation’s leading proponents of hate-crime prosecutions appeared somewhat taken aback by the case.

“This was surprising to many people, that charges were as heavy as they were. I’m not disputing them, but it was a very vigorous prosecution by the government to say the least,” said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “The case reflects a willingness of the government to go after hate criminals in a very heavy way.”

A history of hate-crime legislation published by the Congressional Research Service explains that the policy grew out of the civil rights movement in the 1950s, the women’s rights movement and the gay and lesbian rights movement in the 1970s.

The FBI defines a hate crime as a crime demonstrating bias. Its website states: “A hate crime is a traditional offense like murder, arson, or vandalism with an added element of bias. For the purposes of collecting statistics, Congress has defined a hate crime as a ‘criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.’ Hate itself is not a crime – and the FBI is mindful of protecting freedom of speech and other civil liberties.”

A fierce advocate for the prosecution of hate crimes, the Anti-Defamation League states.

“These crimes occur because of the perpetrator’s bias or animus against the victim on the basis of actual or perceived status – the victim’s race, religion, national origin, gender, gender identity, or disability.”

The defendants in the Amish hate-crimes convictions share the same religion as their victims.

The Amish are traditionalist Christians who favor simple living, plain dress, rural living and self-sufficiency. They avoid modern technology, which could present a challenge for them in prison.

Bishop Samuel Mullet learned last weekend he will be sent to a prison in Texarkana, Texas. His three sons, and three other men convicted in the attacks, have been assigned to prisons in Minnesota, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and Illinois.

They will enter a federal prison system where nearly half of the inmates are behind bars for drug offenses, and modern conveniences such as television will be a constant temptation.

Mullet encourages toughness in the face of their plight.

“Grow up,” he told his jailed son in a recorded phone call. “You can take more than that. I know it’s rough.”

All the defendants rejected plea deals offering leniency. Young mothers turned down chances for probation.

According to the prosecution, there are four defendant couples and the Bergholz community will care for their children.

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