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 after 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."

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  • Sam Mullet

    FILE - In this Oct. 10, 2011 file photo, Sam Mullet leans on the mailbox at his home in Bergholz, Ohio. The FBI and local sheriff's deputies arrested seven men, including Mullet, reputed leader of a breakaway Amish sect, on federal hate crime charges early Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2011. A grand jury indicted 11 individuals for their alleged involvement in a spree of beard cuttings on Dec. 20, 2011. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)

  • Mugshots

    FILE - This file combo made from photos provided by the Jefferson County Sheriffs Department shows, from left, Levi Miller, Johnny Mullet, and Lester Mullet, of Bergholz, Ohio. These three men and two others suspected of forcefully cutting the beards of fellow Amish were arraigned Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2011, and released on $50,000 bonds posted by the leader of their breakaway group. (AP Photo/Jefferson County Sheriffs Department, File)

  • Lester Mullet

    This photo provided by the Jefferson County Sheriffs Department shows Lester Mullet of Bergholz, Ohio. Mullet and three other men believed to be members of a breakaway Amish group were arrested Saturday, Oct. 8, 2011 for allegedly going into the home an elderly Amish man and cutting his hair and beard. (AP Photo/Jefferson County Sheriffs Department)

  • Levi Miller

    This photo provided by the Jefferson County Sheriffs Department shows Levi Miller of Bergholz, Ohio. Miller and three other men believed to be members of a breakaway Amish group were arrested Saturday, Oct. 8, 2011 for allegedly going into the home an elderly Amish man and cutting his hair and beard. (AP Photo/Jefferson County Sheriffs Department)

  • Johnny Mullet

    This photo provided by the Jefferson County Sheriffs Department shows Johnny Mullet of Bergholz, Ohio. Mullet and two other men believed to be members of a breakaway Amish group were arrested Saturday, Oct. 8, 2011 for allegedly going into the home an elderly Amish man and cutting his hair and beard. (AP Photo/Jefferson County Sheriffs Department)

  • Fred Abdella

    Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdella sits at his desk in Steubenville, Ohio on Monday, Oct. 10, 2011. Abdella disputes the claim by Sam Mullet, the leader of a breakaway Amish group, who said that an attack on fellow Amish in which a man's beard was cut off was a religious issue stemming from long-standing resentment of his group's treatment. Sam Mullet, 66, said the goal was to send a message to Amish in Holmes County that they should be ashamed of themselves for the way they were treating Mullet and his community. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)

  • Members of the Amish community leave the U.S. Federal Courthouse Thursday, April 19, 2012, in Cleveland. Sixteen men and women have pleaded not guilty in beard- and hair-cutting attacks against fellow Amish in Ohio. The latest indictment added new allegations that the suspects tried to hide or destroy evidence, including a disposable camera, shears and a bag of hair from the victims. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

  • Members of the Amish community leave the U.S. Federal Courthouse Thursday, April 19, 2012, in Cleveland. Sixteen men and women have pleaded not guilty in beard- and hair-cutting attacks against fellow Amish in Ohio. The latest indictment added new allegations that the suspects tried to hide or destroy evidence, including a disposable camera, shears and a bag of hair from the victims. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

  • Arlene Miller checks for her mail in front of her home on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011 in Carrolton, Ohio. Miller, 46, who is Amish, tells the Associated Press, her husband had his beard cut by members of a breakaway Amish group. Several men came to their door and attacked her husband, who fled when he called his sons for help. (AP Photo/Andrew Welsh-Huggins)

  • Jeffery Stone

    Jeffery Stone, mayor of Bergholz, Ohio. sits on the front stoop of his home in Bergholz on Monday, Oct. 10, 2011. Stone said that he and the town have not have any problems with the group of breakaway Amish living at the edge of his community. Sam Mullet, the leader of a breakaway Amish group said an attack on fellow Amish in which a man's beard was cut off was a religious issue stemming from long-standing resentment of his group's treatment. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)

  • Sam Mullet

    Amish children play baseball during recess outside their school in Bergholz, Ohio home on Monday. Oct. 10, 2011. Sam Mullet , the leader of the breakaway Amish group, said an attack on fellow Amish in which a man's beard was cut off was a religious issue stemming from long-standing resentment of his group's treatment. Mullet, 66, said the goal was to send a message to Amish in Holmes County that they should be ashamed of themselves for the way they were treating Mullet and his community. ( AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)

  • Sam Mullet

    In this photo provided to an Ohio district court late in August, Samuel Mullet allegedly cuts off the beard of his follower, Raymond Hershberger in October last year.