The federal Bureau of Prisons is forcing some imprisoned members of an Ohio Amish community to study for high school equivalency certificates in violation of their First Amendment rights, a lawyer for the sect contends.
Lawyer Edward Bryan, who represents imprisoned Amish bishop Samuel Mullet, said Friday he intends to write a letter of protest to prison officials cite a U.S. Supreme Court decision that found Amish children could not be forced to attend school past 8th grade.
"It's a legitimate purpose and an honorable thing to rehabilitate prisoners by requiring them to obtain their GEDs," Bryan told The Plain Dealer. "But you have to make exceptions, especially for religious reasons."
Chris Burke, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, declined to comment about Bryan's assertions. But he provided the newspaper with the prison's written rules governing education of inmates.
The high-school equivalency curriculum instructs inmates in basic reading, math and written expression, according to the rules, and is the "first step toward adequate preparation for successful post-release reintegration into society."
Exceptions to participation in the program are limited to inmates who have emotional, mental or physical impediments or who face deportation.
Legal experts contacted Friday by the newspaper offered conflicting opinions as to whether the prison system is obligated to make an exception for the Amish bishop and 13 of his imprisoned followers.
Mullet and members of his breakaway Amish farming community 100 miles southeast of Cleveland were convicted in September in connection with beard and hair-cutting attacks on their perceived religious and family enemies.
The bishop, 67, is serving his 15 year term in a prison in Texarkana, Texas – more than 1,000 miles from his family community in Jefferson County. His co-defendants are in separate federal prisons across the country,
All of the Amish inmates are being compelled to receive high-school equivalency lessons against their will, Bryan said. If they refuse, they are being threatened with discipline, up to and including solitary confinement.
That offends Cleveland attorney Terry Gilbert, a veteran of First Amendment battles in federal court.
"Even the Guantanamo prison inmates who are being held with the fewest rights of any defendants in American history are being afforded more religious freedoms than these Amish inmates," Gilbert said. "The rules are clear that unless there is a security problem or a violation of the rights of other inmates that the Bureau of Prisons should respect their religious freedom."
Gilbert predicted the Bureau of Prisons will back down after Bryan complains.
But another legal expert said the prison education conflict involves more than freedom of religion issues.
Jonathan Entin, a Constitutional law professor at Case Western Reserve University's School of Law, 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.
If a government regulation applies to everyone in the prison, he said, that could trump the 1972 Supreme Court ruling in Wisconsin vs. Yoder that gave the Amish the right not to attend school after eighth grade.
"The government will probably say 'We don't have a lot of Amish inmates, and we have a policy that we want you to take GED classes because it will be good for you down the road.'" For that reason, Mullet's and the others" claims may fail," Entin said.
While studying under protest, Bryan said, most of the Amish pupils are tops in their classes.
"They're all bilingual," he said, "and know the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic better than most people."