The nationally covered trial of a group of Amish involved in a forced beard-cutting against other Amish members made an impression across the county, but some Ohio judges recently learned about complicated realities behind the community.
Highland County Magistrate Cynthia Williams was one of around 50 Ohio judges and magistrates who learned about the Amish community during an Ohio Supreme Court Judicial College course. The group traveled to the heart of Amish country to Berlin in Holmes County where about 45 percent of the county's population, or 30,000 people, are Amish.
"I'm overwhelmed with their knowledge of our culture and how little we know about them," Williams said.
The group learned about the four main Amish affiliations and participated in several activities. They visited a one-room schoolhouse where they learned that a typical Amish member has only an eighth grade education. They discussed the impact of Wisconsin v. Yoder, the landmark decision regarding Amish education and religious liberty. The group also observed the history of ethnic discrimination and persecution of the Amish and Mennonite communities through a large circular mural at the heritage center. They then visited an Amish home, ate supper with their host family, and talked about the Amish way of life.
"The way they've allowed us to come into their schools and see how they grow up and bring us into their homes and the fact that they want to talk to us and they want to educate us and they want us to understand about them. They don't want to change themselves, but they wanted us to understand and just their interactions with us, is a lot more than I expected," Williams said.
Williams works in domestic relations and said she attended the judicial course in hopes of finding suggestions to make sure justice is served if an Amish family enters her courtroom. She said she learned a lot from this hands-on approach to judicial learning.
"Actually going in and seeing their schools and actually speaking with them one on one, I think we learned far more than someone standing at a podium with a book," Williams said.
Magistrate Tossie Wiley of Cuyahoga County said there isn't a large Amish population in Cleveland, but the course gave him a different perspective to how he will sit on the bench in the future.
"I think one of the things it's done is to sensitize me more to the fact that there are different religious groups, different cultures that have very strong beliefs that really could affect their behavior how they may view certain factual patterns and that can have significant impact in our court," Wiley said.
After these onsite experiences in the Amish community, the judges and magistrates met with an Old Order Amish Bishop, a former Amish man who is now in law enforcement, and others from the community to discuss legal, procedural, and ethical challenges of maintaining religious liberties while ensuring fairness in the courtroom.
Participants examine practices to encourage courtroom participation and discussed ways to mitigate the tendency towards implicit bias in the courts. The judicial officers and panelists discussed issues ranging from hate crimes such as the "beard cutting case" that originated in northeast Ohio, forced medical treatment, and Amish or minority religions' views on doctrines such as forgiveness and restoration, and issues raised regarding such practical matters as electronic monitoring, head coverings, or other religious expressions.