Polygamous sect verdict: Why religion is no longer a shield for crime

The verdict against two FLDS-run towns this week shows Americans are drawing a deeper distinction between religious and criminal activity, especially against women and children.

Andrew Chatwin/AP
This photo provided shows law enforcement officers conducting a search at Reliance Electric in Hildale, Utah, in February. A federal jury this week found Hildale and Colorado City, Ariz., both of which are run by the polygamous FLDS sect, guilty of multiple civil rights violations. The Federal Bureau of Investigation rounded up 11 FLDS leaders on felony welfare fraud charges.

The federal prosecution of criminal and civil rights violations in two remote towns on the Utah-Arizona border suggests that Americans – and their law enforcement agencies – are quickly erasing cultural taboos against prosecuting polygamous sects in the US.

The two-pronged attack by the Department of Justice against a Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints sect, legal experts say, shows a deepening sophistication among Americans when it comes to drawing a distinction between religious activities and criminal activity, especially against women and children.

A federal jury this week found two FLDS-run towns guilty of multiple civil rights violations, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation rounded up 11 FLDS leaders on felony welfare fraud charges. The jury found that the towns sabotaged people considered threats, that the police departments harassed and intimidated nonbelievers, and that local officials denied services to new residents from outside the faith.

The verdict, experts say, demonstrates progress in resolving a fundamental American tension between the free expression of faith and protecting US citizens from the activities of others, when those violate their constitutional rights. One way of resolving this tension that appears to have been adopted by law enforcement, legal experts say, is to separate the crime from the religion, and target the former.

The prosecutions are “important because we have gone through this era now in which there have been successive unveilings of sexual abuse in a wide variety of institutions, and one option all along was to just let the fringe religious groups continue to operate as they were operating,” says Marci Hamilton, a constitutional law professor at Yeshiva University in New York City. “What this [action] shows is that the law matters, and that oppression and theocracy are unacceptable. And that’s good news for the individual status of women and children.”

Run from a Texas prison by convicted child molester and bigamist Warren Jeffs, the FLDS towns, the federal jury found, violated child labor laws and civil rights laws by refusing service to nonbelievers, many of whom live side by side with FLDS adherents who post signs reading “Zion” on their front porches.

“The critical thing to pay attention to is in the politically charged rhetoric of religious liberty, what’s often left in the background is that fact that no theocracy may exist in the United States, and in [Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah] you had government operating as pure theocracy,” Professor Hamilton says. “In other words, you had to be a true believer to have the firetruck show up at your burning house.”

Indictments against 11 others, including two of Mr. Jeffs’s brothers, describe a bold scheme that law enforcement officials say aimed to bilk millions of taxpayer dollars through food stamp fraud. In one strategy detailed in the indictment, church members swiped EBT cards at church-owned stores and received nothing in return.

The argument from the town attorneys was a traditional one – that church members were victims of persecution, not the other way around. It has in the past been an effective one, particularly in Utah, where the issue of polygamy has been sensitive. The state was founded by the Mormon Church, which originally practiced polygamy in the 19th century before officially terminating the practice in 1890. The FLDS is not affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In fact, in December 2013, a Utah state court found polygamous cohabitation legal in a case involving the TLC reality series “Sister Wives.” The judge ruled that making it a crime for married people to live with other people violates “important [rights] of personal and religious freedom,” as George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley has put it. (The case is now being heard by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.)

Indeed, Utah and the federal government have walked a tightrope on polygamy for decades. Much of the current tension runs back to a 1953 raid on the same Utah FLDS community by state authorities. Pictures of crying children being ripped from their mothers’ arms by state agents sparked outrage. One former Utah attorney general told researchers that, as a result of the raid, “We can’t penetrate closed groups” or “get local prosecutors to do their jobs.”

More recently, in 2007, “prophet” Jeffs was indicted on statutory rape charges, after a major manhunt. Texas in 2008 took custody of 462 children who had been living on an FLDS ranch, sparking one of the largest child custody cases in US history.

While some agents showed up with heavy firearms, most of that raid, in contrast to 1953, was handled peacefully by state social workers.

When an appeals court in 2011 voided Jeffs’s charges in Utah on a technicality, Texas had him extradited, charging him with a litany of serious sexual misconduct against minors. At one point, Jeffs is believed to have had 80 wives, some of whom had been as young as 12. He is now serving a life sentence in a Texas prison.

Yet Jeffs has continued to lead the church in his “prophet” role, which gives him broad powers over the marital arrangements of his followers. But in recent years, apostates have testified, an exodus from the church has intensified, with perhaps as many as 1,000 people leaving in the past few years.

Meanwhile, Utah reopened a school in the Hildale area, which Jeffs had closed when he took over. A sort of “underground railroad” has emerged to help ferret victims away from the sect and prepare them for life outside the literal walls put up by members to keep an “evil” world at bay.

In January, a federal judge heard arguments in a civil case against an FLDS labor contractor accused of using 1,400 unpaid FLDS laborers, including 175 children, during a pecan harvest in 2012.

While John Huber, US attorney for Utah, has been careful to articulate that the prosecutions were not about “religion ... but fraud,” it’s clear to some observers that his decision to target the leadership structure could serve to destabilize the church and potentially allow more victims to escape its grip.

“In today’s America, the religious and the secular each accuse the other of having an unfair stranglehold on public policy.... But that’s not what this is about,” wrote The Arizona Republic’s editorial board this week. “Warren Jeffs’ band of polygamists do not get to hide their offenses under a cloak of religion.”

Yet the government turning up the heat on FLDS now does not by itself resolve what University of Utah law professor Amos Guiora calls the “deep, deep stain” of the state historically failing to protect boys, girls, and women.

After all, women who have left the church have complained for decades about systemic abuses. And practices such as FLDS men taking child brides and the plight of “lost boys” – male children who are abandoned on the highway by their mothers before they grow old enough to become sexual competition for older men – have been widely reported.

“The largest and most fundamental question in this case is: To whom does the state owe a duty – to religion or to vulnerable members of a religion?” Professor Guiora says. “The fact is, in Utah, state agents have articulated their duty as to the religion.”

Broadly, Gallup found last year that polygamy “retains its essence of moral repugnancy in the nation’s social consciousness.” Yet thanks to shows like TLC’s “Sister Wives” – the crux of the 10th Circuit case – there has been a slight softening of views toward polygamy, where 16 percent of Americans now believe the practice is morally acceptable, compared with 6 percent in 2003.

Such shifts suggest that the US is facing “a litmus test of civil rights around not just religion but how people organize their intimate lives,” says Courtney Bailey, a professor at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, who studies changing cultural attitudes toward polygamy.

That may be so. But ultimately, the decision by authorities to dismantle what was ruled a theocracy on US soil and imprison church leaders on fraud charges indicates that US society is more clearly – and broadly – articulating the limits of religious freedom.

“The TV version of polygamy sure looks interesting and fun, but increasingly the victims of polygamy have come to the forefront, published books, conducted lectures, making it increasingly hard to paint polygamy in this soft light,” says Hamilton at Yeshiva University. “Twenty years ago it was taboo to say negative things about religion in public. Today it is easier for people to see the crime and understand that this has nothing to do with discrimination and everything to do with criminal behavior.”

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