Even as his followers' home base comes under fire from a federal civil rights lawsuit, polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs has been excommunicating dozens of people, apparently accusing them of breaking his ban on sex, former sect members say.
Some 50 people have been tossed out of the group in recent weeks and leaders loyal to Jeffs have halted all church meetings until the "lifting up," or end of the world, said Wallace Jeffs, a brother to the leader who was himself cast out last year.
"Warren just considers that a great honor to be able to go to meetings. It's just a way to punish the people," he said. Those excommunicated in recent weeks were accused of "the murder of unborn children" for using birth control to circumvent the sex ban, even though many are older, and at least one man is over 80, Wallace Jeffs said.
Warren Jeffs often uses the "unborn children" phrase in the "revelations from God" that he writes from a Texas prison and has his followers send to government officials and librarians all over the country.
The recently excommunicated include high-profile leaders like Vaughan Taylor, the man who used to sign those revelations, and high-ranking sect members at the group's Yearning for Zion Ranch near Eldorado, Texas. In the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, excommunication generally means that members are told to leave their homes and their families and not return, though some are eventually allowed back after "repenting from afar." Their wives and children can be assigned to other men.
Also among the rejected are the group's midwives, along with the community's dentist and doctor in the twin border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., said Willie Jessop, a former spokesman for the sect who broke with Jeffs and now supports a rival prophet.
"Five women, all very, very high-profile, wonderful people, were asked to remove themselves from associating with the people of the community," Jessop said.
The lack of local medical care leaves residents in a potentially dangerous situation most of all those who get pregnant. There haven't been any marriages in the community since Warren Jeffs was first arrested in 2006, and last year he banned even spouses from having sex. But encounters still happen, Jessop said, and when women do get pregnant, couples feel extreme pressure to keep the child a secret.
"They cover up the medical health of the wife, don't get prenatal care," he said. "At the end, it's the women and children and the most innocent who are the most vulnerable and pay the ultimate price of abuse."
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice last week filed a major civil rights lawsuit accusing the FLDS-dominated police and utility companies in Colorado City and Hildale of religious bias against non-members of the sect. Attorneys for the towns say the accusations are unfounded.
Carolyn Jessop, who chronicled her 2003 departure from the group in the best-selling book Escape, speculated the lawsuit could end with town leaders working with federal authorities or it could be a drawn-out court battle.
"I would like to believe this lawsuit would lead to some progress, but I've seen so much come and go around this issue that I'm skeptical," Carolyn Jessop said. The lawsuit doesn't contain criminal charges, but is sweeping in its language, accusing municipal authorities of "operating as an arm of the FLDS" for at least 20 years.
"That's going to be really difficult to make stick," she said.
The Colorado City fire chief and town manager were already facing public corruption charges in Arizona alleging they mishandled fire district money.
"It's a social disaster down there, a dire set of conditions," she said.
An FLDS elder listed on the "revelations" and an attorney for the sect could not be reached for comment.
Jeffs, 56, is serving a life prison sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting two girls, ages 12 and 15, whom he took as polygamous wives. He has previously been punished for preaching to his flock over the phone, but remains able to communicate through weekend visits and letters.
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