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States divided on approach to polygamous sect

Law officers in Arizona and Utah say their method of confronting the FLDS must differ from that of Texas.

By Faye BowersCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 5, 2008

Attorneys general: Mark Shurtleff of Utah and Terry Goddard of Arizona (not shown), the top law officers in their states, have taken a different approach from that of Texas concerning keeping tabs on the FLDS church.

Douglas C. Pizac/AP/FILE

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PHOENIX

It was a showdown, of sorts, over how far states should go to keep tabs on the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, the group known to endorse multiple wives for men and motherhood for underage girls. In a public spat, officials from Arizona and Utah squared off last week against a US senator who suggested that the two states, home to FLDS communities, should follow the more interventionist approach of Texas in cracking down on the breakaway Mormon sect.

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At the end of it all, the wrangling may well result in federal involvement in investigating the FLDS, which numbers more than 10,000 and has compounds in several Western states, Canada, and Mexico. But it also underscores why Arizona and Utah have moved with caution in dealing with the FLDS, compared with Texas' decision last month to take temporary custody of all the children living at the group's Yearning for Zion ranch in the wake of abuse complaints.

The dispute began April 28 with a radio interview with Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, which drew an angry letter from the Arizona and Utah attorneys general.

"I am a cheerleader for what Texas is doing," Senator Reid told the University of Utah's KUER RadioWest. "Texas is doing what Utah and Arizona should have done decades ago…." Reid, the majority leader and a Mormon, added that he has asked the US Justice Department to create a task force to investigate the FLDS.

Texas raided the 1,700-acre FLDS ranch in early April and took temporary custody of all 463 children, pending the state's voluminous investigation of child-abuse allegations. Arizona and Utah have not acted on that scale, at least not since 1953. But the two states did join forces about five years ago to "apply the rule of law" in the border towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, headquarters of the FLDS. They have prosecuted the FLDS leader as well as several other male members, removed much of the sect's financial underpinnings, and set up in those two towns social services and sheriff's offices that are operated by people from outside the FLDS group.

When Mark Shurtleff became Utah's attorney general in 2001, one investigator specifically worked cases in "closed communities" – code, he says, for polygamous communities. That investigator chased down Tom Green, later convicted of child rape, bigamy, and fraud. Several of Mr. Green's underage wives were from the FLDS towns on the Utah-Arizona border.

"My determination to do something started then," Mr. Shurtleff says in a phone interview. "We hadn't done anything in 50 years, and I said it's time we start investigating these cases."

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