Polygamy: Where religious liberty ends

Published April 13, 2008 1:33 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

For more than a century and a half, Americans have seen polygamy from a distance and through a filter of silence.

But in recent years, the view has become more distinct: a prophet in prison, jail terms for men who marry underage women, a precision raid on a ranch in west Texas. And this is where the social imperative of protecting the young and the vulnerable collides with the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion.

This past week, the raid on the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Eldorado, Texas, has once again brought polygamy into focus, especially among scholars and legal experts who've studied the phenomenon for years.

Marci Hamilton is frankly shocked it had not happened sooner.

"Nobody's had the guts to do what Texas authorities did," said Hamilton, a church-state scholar and attorney who lives in the Philadelphia area. "We so often ignore what's happening to children in religious communities . . . finally a group of authorities realized they couldn't let it go on any more."

She has a history with abused children, particularly the sexual assault victims of priests or ministers, and she has no patience for those who argue that the autonomy and privacy of adults is more important than protecting children.

"There's an American tendency to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to religion . . . [and be] very deferential to religious entities," she said, and that's got to stop.

"The Supreme Court is very consistent. Conduct that's illegal is illegal for everybody."

In the Texas operation, 416 children and 139 women were escorted from the FLDS compound over several days. Fifty-seven men were allowed to stay, and while authorities have promised a rigorous investigation into allegations of physical and sexual abuse, no charges have been filed.

And the 16-year-old girl who purportedly called for help, saying her husband and father of her baby had beaten and choked her, has yet to be found.

For now, outsiders can only speculate about what really went on beyond the gate to the ranch and what will happen next.

Insular living

There are polygamous communities whose adherents freely mingle with the broader society. But of all the groups in Utah and the Intermountain West, the FLDS most prefer the barrier of distance. Their traditional home base, the twin towns of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Ariz., are situated in the Southwest high desert, miles from other towns.

After their prophet, Warren S. Jeffs, came increasingly into the public eye after a series of crackdowns on his followers, the ranch in Texas was purchased. A huge, dorm-like housing went up, crops planted and infrastructure established, there arose what would become an imposing limestone temple that only the select may enter.

They lived peacefully there, co-existing with their Texas neighbors until the raid, which sent a flood of police and child protection investigators washing over their fields.

That development brings to the forefront the way the courts, and the American people, don't always get it right, says Sarah Barringer Gordon, a constitutional law and history professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

"What I'm interested in is people who are trying their level best to live the life they believe God has commanded them to live," she said. "Allowing differences, creativity and individuality is vitally important."

But when it comes to child abuse, Gordon said, "that is the end of religious liberty every time."

That may be true, but history has shown that raids on alternative religious communities aren't necessarily effective, said Stephen Kent, a sociology professor at the University of Alberta who has studied polygamy for about 10 years.

Incursions by law enforcement may be meant to protect children, but Kent said history shows "in almost all instances the children get returned to their parents."

That's what happened several years after the 1953 raid on Short Creek (now Hildale and Colorado City), when 236 women and children were taken into Arizona state custody for two years before they were allowed to return home.

The images that emerged from that raid also proved a public relations disaster for Arizona, whose governor was kicked out of office in the next election. It also scared off authorities in Utah and Arizona, who essentially would leave polygamists alone for the next 50 years.

Global raids in the 1980s and 1990s on the Children of God, a group founded in 1968 that's now known as The Family International, removed at least 700 children. They were later returned and no adults were convicted of crimes, even though law enforcement authorities had seen videotapes "clearly showing sexual violation of children," Kent said.

Like many watching the Texas story unfold, Kent worries that unless the allegedly abused 16-year-old caller is found, the original search warrant, and the subsequent evidence, will be thrown out, as FLDS attorneys already have demanded in court.

More worrisome, though, is that the children are subject to sexual exploitation, Kent said. "Underaged children have been sexual targets in many of these communities for decades."

But criminal charges for sexual abuse are a more recent phenomenon.

In 1953, Arizona tried and failed to have the children adopted into new families, thus severing ties with their fundamentalist parents.

Then as now, says Utah scholar Martha Bradley, who has spent time with polygamous families, the FLDS women stuck with their children. That "devotion to their children is way more important to them than security, safety or anything else."

Unlike then, there is no national backlash now about the raid because prosecutions of polygamist men have shown the public a disquieting side to the FLDS community, particularly the marriage of ever-younger women. It was Jeffs, she said, whose "extremist" interpretation of theology and practice reshaped his sect.

"It makes perfect sense that [Texas authorities] would take them out," Bradley said.

Creating martyrs?

The religious lodestar of the FLDS can be found in early Mormon scripture, which among other things considers plural marriage an imperative for salvation. It's a tenet that the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints left behind more than a century ago.

But for many fundamentalist Mormons, no raid will change their beliefs.

In fact, the crackdown is likely to strengthen the faithful, said Kathryn Daynes, who teaches history at Brigham Young University and has studied 19th-century Mormon plural marriages. Some may leave the sect, but those who remain will cling to the community ideals and stay even quieter about their practices and problems.

And if any are convicted of crimes and imprisoned? "What they're doing [in Texas] is creating martyrs," Daynes said.

Worse, she said, the onslaught of outsiders sounds a lot like "cultural imperialism."

"I'm certainly not in the polygamist mold or anything like that," she said, "But to take every child out of that group because of alleged abuses by a person they cannot yet find, that really smacks of stereotyping."

Human understanding

This weekend, the women and children of the Yearning for Zion Ranch are living in another kind of isolation: a historic fort and a special events center in San Angelo, about 50 miles north of their home. They have each other, and a cadre of doctors, nurses, mental health specialists and social workers.

The women, officials say, are free to leave, but their children will remain in state custody.

It's looking likely that at least some of the children, if not many, will be placed in foster homes for an indeterminate amount of time.

On Saturday, the people of San Angelo offered hope and prayers for the women and children. They want them to know, said resident Charlotte Anderson, "They haven't been forsaken by their God, their healer."

"The Supreme Court is very consistent. Conduct that's illegal is illegal for everybody."

Reader comments on sltrib.com are the opinions of the writer, not The Salt Lake Tribune. We will delete comments containing obscenities, personal attacks and inappropriate or offensive remarks. Flagrant or repeat violators will be banned. If you see an objectionable comment, please alert us by clicking the arrow on the upper right side of the comment and selecting "Flag comment as inappropriate". If you've recently registered with Disqus or aren't seeing your comments immediately, you may need to verify your email address. To do so, visit disqus.com/account.
See more about comments here.
comments powered by Disqus