Magazine article The Christian Century

Verdict on Polygamy Case: Religion Is Not a Shield for Criminal Activities

Magazine article The Christian Century

Verdict on Polygamy Case: Religion Is Not a Shield for Criminal Activities

Article excerpt

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

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

A federal jury in March 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 who were considered threats, that the police departments harassed and intimidated nonbelievers, and that local officials denied services to new residents from outside of the faith.

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," said Marci Hamilton, a constitutional law professor at Yeshiva University in New York City. "What this [government action] shows is that the law matters, and that oppression and theocracy are unacceptable."

A federal jury found that the FLDS towns, run from a Texas prison by convicted child molester and bigamist Warren Jeffs, violated child labor laws, as well as civil rights laws, which they did 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," Hamilton said. In Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, "you had to be a true believer to have the fire truck show up at your burning house."

The indictments 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. The argument has in the past been effective, particularly in Utah, where the issue of polygamy has been sensitive. The state was founded by the Mormon Church, which 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 December 2013, a Utah state court found polygamous cohabitation legal in a case involving the reality television 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 Tenth 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. …

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