To an outsider, an Amish man's chest-length beard or an Amish woman's long locks might not appear all that remarkable. But they hold great religious significance to the Amish: They are symbols of one's devotion to God and to the Amish community.
That's why the head of an Amish splinter group and his followers are facing federal hate-crime charges in an unusual case playing out in Cleveland, Ohio.
Prosecutors have charged Sam Mullet Sr. with leading a band of 16 followers on a series of violent attacks targeting religious rivals: Defendants allegedly slashed off men's beards and hacked off at least one woman's hair. The assaults left victims shaken and in some cases, bloodied and battered.
Steve Nolt, a history professor at Goshen College in Indiana, and author of several books on Amish culture and history, told the Los Angeles Times that such forcible hair cutting is far more than a prank.
"The individuals who did this were targeting one of the most central symbols of manhood in Amish culture," Nolt said. "Choosing to cut the beard is making a pretty dramatic statement."
Hair, he explained, "is a sign of submission to the discipline to the church, and it's also a sign of your submission to the group and devotion to God."
Nolt said the case is being closely followed both by those outside the Amish community and by the Amish, known for their adherence to a simple, non-violent way of living.
"It's so troubling and shocking because of the religious symbolism that the beard holds," Nolt said. "This is just so unprecedented.... This is just completely outside anything that is a part of the Amish culture."
Amish women typically grow their hair long, and keep it covered. Men, meanwhile, often sport a clean-shaven face until they marry -- and then grow a beard that is never trimmed. (There are exceptions, Nolt said. Some single men also grow a beard out of devotion.)
"It's linked to being an adult member of the church," Nolt said. "In some settlements, a man will grow a beard as soon as he is baptized [which takes place around the age of 18].... Almost all Amish churches insist that the beard remains untrimmed."
Mullet has been considered a problematic figure throughout the Amish community for some time, Nolt said. A 2006 gathering of Amish leaders took place in Pennsylvania in part to discuss how to deal with Mullet and with people joining or leaving his religious circle.
"The purpose of the meeting was the widespread recognition that there was something amiss," Nolt said.
By and large, the Amish are an insular group that prefers to handle problems without the interference of outsiders. One of the most feared forms of punishment within the community is "shunning" -- a type of excommunication in which the offender is ignored as if he or she ceases to exist.
But the hair-cutting incidents that took place last fall in eastern Ohio were far too serious, and came to the attention of local law enforcement.
There are about 275,000 Amish living in North America, Nolt said.
In testimony in the case earlier Wednesday, an Amish preacher testified that three of the defendants showed up at his home last fall and attacked his father.
According to the Associated Press, Andy Hershberger testified that his father begged the men not to shear him, but the men held him down. Minutes later, the hair from his father's beard had been cut and scattered across the floor, clumps of hair were missing from his father's head, and his scalp was bleeding.
Afterward, Hershberger said, his father was "shaking" and "the women and my dad were crying," he testified, according to the AP.
Defense attorneys don't deny the incidents took place, according to the news service.
They say that the Amish are bound by different religious rules, and that the government should not get involved. The defendants took their actions, their attorneys say, out of concern that some Amish were straying from their beliefs.
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