From the Associated Press:

An appeals court panel on Wednesday overturned the hate-crime convictions of 16 Amish men and women in beard- and hair-cutting attacks on fellow members of their faith in Ohio, ruling that religion wasn’t their driving motive.

A 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel sided with arguments brought by attorneys for the Amish, convicted two years ago in five attacks in 2011. The attacks were in apparent retaliation against Amish who had defied or denounced the authoritarian style of Sam Mullet Sr., leader of the Bergholz community in eastern Ohio.

In a deeply divided decision, two of the three judges on the panel concluded that the jury received incorrect instructions about how to weigh the role of religion in the attacks. They also said prosecutors should have had to prove that the assaults wouldn’t have happened but for religious motives.

“When all is said and done, considerable evidence supported the defendants’ theory that interpersonal and intra-family disagreements, not the victims’ religious beliefs, sparked the attacks,” the judges wrote.

Dissenting judge Edmund A. Sargus, Jr. “wrote that religion was a clear motive for the 2011 attacks and that the hate-crime convictions were appropriate, especially against Mullet.”

Sam Mullet is serving a 15-year sentence while seven others are serving between five and seven years.

Defense attorney Wendi Overmyer will now likely seek their release.

UPDATE: In an article for TIME magazine, Donald Kraybill discusses the effects of this decision on future hate crimes prosecution.  He suggests that if the appellate court’s more restrictive interpretation goes unchallenged, then future hate crimes prosecutions will be more difficult.