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Amish shunning is central to Ohio hate crime trial

Published September 15, 2012 11:48 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

CLEVELAND • In the stern, self-regulating world of the Amish, those who act out time and again by wearing the wrong clothing, going to movies or otherwise flouting the church's doctrine can find themselves utterly alone.

Fellow Amish in rare instances won't break bread with them at the same table, won't work with them and won't worship with them under the religion's centuries-old practice of shunning. In stricter settlements, shunning can break apart families, cutting off all contact between parents and their children.

Saloma Furlong was shunned, or ex-communicated, after she left her church the first time over a family issue, and she was barred from attending her cousin's wedding when she returned home. "It was a very lonely two weeks," said Furlong, who eventually left behind her home in northeast Ohio for good and was permanently shunned.

The Amish take the tradition so seriously that most churches won't accept someone who has been shunned until they make it right with those who've disciplined them.

At the root of Amish hair-cutting attacks in Ohio and the federal hate crime trial that followed, prosecutors say, was a dispute over religious differences and a decision by Amish bishops to overrule the leader of a breakaway group who had shunned his former followers. Amish scholars say taking away a bishop's edict was unheard of and stunned communities far and wide.

Six years ago, about 300 Amish bishops gathered in Pennsylvania to discuss the group's leader, Sam Mullet Sr., who had ordered the shunning of families that left his settlement near the West Virginia panhandle.

Mullet had come to the attention of the bishops because, according to witnesses at his trial, there were concerns he was brain-washing community members. Prosecutors would later say he forced men to sleep in chicken coops as punishment, and one woman testified that Mullet coerced women at his settlement into having sex with him so he could turn them into better wives.

The bishops eventually vetoed Mullet's shunning of the others, infuriating him to the point that he sought revenge last fall in a series of five hair-cutting attacks, prosecutors say.

They charged Mullet and 15 of his followers with hate crimes because they contend they acted over religious differences and targeted the hair and beards of the Amish because of its spiritual significance in the faith. All could face lengthy prison terms if convicted on the charges that also include conspiracy and obstructing justice.

Jurors began deliberating in the trial Thursday morning.

None of the defendants has denied that the hair-cuttings took place, but Mullet has insisted that he didn't plan what happened. In an interview last fall, he defended what he thinks is his right to punish people who break church laws.

Shunning — also known as avoidance —is a rare happening in the Amish community. While outsiders might view it as punishment, the Amish consider it an act of love to help those who have strayed from their beliefs.

Each individual church decides when to shun others and what kind of punishment they face. "It's not like there's a rulebook," said Steve Nolt, a history professor at Goshen College in Indiana.

Only baptized church members can be shunned. And it almost always starts with a warning to stop breaking church rules — whether it's to quit drinking or stop talking on the telephone — and weeks or months of discussion.

"Shunning is something the individual does to themselves," said Karen Johnson-Weiner, a professor at the State University of New York in Potsdam who has written extensively about the Amish. "It's community-wide tough love."

There also has to be agreement within the congregation, but the bishop has the most influence in revoking someone's church membership.

"That's a hard thing for a bishop to do," said Andy Hershberger, who testified in the trial that Mullet's son was among a group that cut his father's hair last fall. His father was one of the bishops who overruled Mullet's shunning order.

Furlong, who left her home church for good after a dispute with a bishop, said shunning gives Amish leaders too much control. "They can use it like a hammer," she said.

Because the Amish identify so closely with their faith, being shunned and faced with the loss of their salvation is extremely painful.

"It's such an intense thing. Nobody can really explain it," said Furlong, who wrote a book called "Why I Left the Amish" in 2011. "That's a pretty tough thing to reckon with."

Matthew Schrock, who left Holmes County's Amish community in Ohio during the mid-1990s, wasn't formally shunned, but no one would hire him because he was fighting with his father, who was the bishop. "There were a lot of people who wouldn't talk to me," he said. "No one was willing to risk the appearance of them siding with me."

Shunning has its roots in biblical teachings and is used in some Mennonite churches as well. Jehovah's Witnesses also practice a form of shunning. But it's essential to Amish beliefs.

"They want the person to see their error," Schrock said. "But under that, I think, is this desire to maintain the integrity of the group."