Some of the Amish sentenced in beard-cutting attacks on fellow Amish in Ohio are upset with federal prison education requirements.
The U.S. Bureau of Prisons has required some to study for high school equivalency certificates, one of their defense attorneys said. The Amish claim that violates their First Amendment rights.
Edward Bryan, who represented the leader of the group, told The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer that he intends to write a letter of protest to prison officials. He cited a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that found Amish children may not be forced to attend school past eighth grade.
Bryan told The Associated Press in an email Saturday that he plans to contact the agency Monday, but declined further comment.
In response, prison system spokesman Chris Burke cited prison rules that high-school equivalency classes are a first step toward returning to society. In an email Saturday, he also referenced a prison program statement that said, “Our literacy standard reflects those in communities where we will release federal inmates.”
Bryan said the Amish deserve a religious exemption.
“It’s a legitimate purpose and an honorable thing to rehabilitate prisoners by requiring them to obtain their GEDs,” Bryan said. “But you have to make exceptions, especially for religious reasons.”
Exceptions to participation in the program are limited to inmates who have emotional, mental or physical impediments or who face deportation.
Sam Mullet Sr., 67, is serving his 15 year term in a prison in Texarkana, Texas, and his co-defendants are held in prisons across the country. The other 15 received sentences ranging from one to seven years.
If the Amish reject the educational requirement, they are being threatened with discipline, Bryan said.
Jonathan Entin, a Constitutional law professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said the Amish inmates have a “far from frivolous claim.”
But they may not prevail, he said, because the prisons require classes for the vast majority of inmates who lack high school diplomas.
The defendants, all members of the same Amish sect, were convicted of hate crimes in 2011 attacks meant to shame fellow Amish they believed were straying from the strict religious interpretations espoused by the sect’s leader.
Prosecutors say the defendants targeted hair because it carries spiritual significance, hence the hate crime prosecution.