Post submitted by Remington A. Gregg, former HRC Legislative Counsel

A case involving a violent attack that includes cutting of hair and beards isn’t funny, yet sometimes in life, truth is stranger than fiction.  That is exactly the case in a constitutional challenge to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA).  Why?  The hair cutting hate crimes case is officially known as United States v. Mullet.

Yesterday, HRC joined 40 groups, including leading civil rights, religious, education, and professional organizations in filing an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief in a first-of-its kind case challenging the constitutionality of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA). 

The HCPA was signed into law in 2009, and expanded existing federal hate crime laws to address crimes committed because of an actual or perceived bias against a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, gender, or disability.  The law only criminalizes intentional conduct, not beliefs or thoughts. 

More than a dozen members of the Old Order Amish faith were convicted under the HCPA after embarking on an elaborate, violent attack to cut off the beards and hair of male victims and the hair of female victims of fellow members of the order as punishment for “stray[ing] from the true path.”  Beards and hair hold special religious significance for the Amish.  One of the defendants appealed the lower court decision, arguing that the law should not punish acts perpetrated by members of the same religious group.

HRC and other amici primarily argue that the HCPA allows for a member of a religion to be convicted for an act against a member of the same religion.  The logic is quite simple.  A hate crime is unique in that the crime is committed due to a perpetrator’s bias.  As the brief stated, “ [ i ] n the vast majority of these crimes, but for the victim’s personal characteristic, no crime would occur at all.”  Hate crimes are meant to terrorize both the victim and a community.  In this case, the community terrorized was the one that strayed from the “true path” of other members of the order.  Moreover, allowing an exception in the law for members of the same religion – or in the future, the same gender identity or sexual orientation – would result in inappropriate inquiries by the court. 

HRC is continuing to work to ensure effective implementation of the HCPA.  For example, the data for the FBI’s Hate Crime Statistics Report, which assesses the state of hate crimes in America, is voluntarily given by local law enforcement, resulting in significant underreporting, making it difficult for advocates to accurately assess the state of hate crimes in America.  We hope that the Sixth Circuit upholds the section of the HCPA at issue so that we can focus on ensuring that the HCPA continues to serve as a bulwark for all.

Filed under: Hate Crimes, Media

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