Sixth Circuit grants Amish hair cutters new trial

Today the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its decision in Miller v. United States, in which CIR client Kathryn Miller and other Amish appealed their convictions under the federal hate crimes law for forcibly shaving the beards and cutting the hair of other Amish.  The federal hate crimes law criminalizes violent acts performed “because of religion.”

While the court recognized that religion was at least one motivation for the attacks, it held that the trial judge erred by not instructing the jury that the prosecution had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that religion was a “but for” cause of them — that is, that the attacks would not have happened absent the defendants’ religious motivation.  (Here, other, personal motives may have been involved.)  The court accordingly reversed the defendants’ convictions and ordered a new trial.

The court also held that, because it ordered a new trial, it could leave the Commerce Clause and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act challenges to the convictions undecided — even though success in either of these challenges would have given the defendants much more relief: the reversal of their convictions without any second trial.

Photo: “Amish” by Shinya Suzuki licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.