I don’t care about Warren Jeffs’ civil rights.
That is, I don’t care as much about them as about the rights of women who are allegedly abused, and men who are used and discarded under the watch of this self-aggrandizing false prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the FLDS: distinct from the mainline Mormon church).
Prior to being arrested (in Vegas!) a few years back, Jeffs was the petty tyrant of his own theocracy, a dictatorship that exists in the United States of America, with barely a whimper from anyone with enough power to make a bang.
The FLDS claims that polygamy, which is illegal in the United States, is a religious belief, so that makes authorities reluctant to do much about it. Mustn’t repeat the mistakes of the Short Creek raids of the 1950s, when polygamist families were ripped apart (and this was indeed lamentable). Mustn’t be seen as intolerant! The authorities fear even the whisper of the words “religious persecution.”
Still, in 2007, Jeffs was convicted of being an accomplice to rape after Elissa Wall bravely told a Utah jury that when she was 14, Jeffs forced her to marry her 19-year-old cousin.
But this July, Jeffs wound up skating, due to what the Utah Supreme Court said were jury instructions that misstated the law. His conviction was overturned; it was not clear in early August whether Utah would re-try him.
And his attorneys began bleating these words: “Religious persecution and a religious prosecution.”
It’s catchy. I accept that everyone is entitled to a defense. But it’s still baloney.
Jeffs has been accused of arranging several underage marriages, sometimes involving brides as young as 12. Texas is seeking to extradite him on allegations that Jeffs himself married underage girls. Those who have escaped his closed communities in Texas, Utah, and Arizona allege gross abuses of power: families split up on Jeffs’ whim; mismanagement of the church’s trust fund; and a police force that does little more than act as Jeffs’ muscle.
And there’s the polygamy: a.k.a. “the Principle,” a.k.a., the misogynistic fantasy of a libidinous con-man; a.k.a., in the words of (non-FLDS) polygamy survivor Rowenna Erickson, “one big eternal f***.”
It is one thing to hold plural marriage as a religious tenet. It is another thing entirely to coerce children into polygamy — children who are too young and inexperienced to know what they want, or how to make a free choice (even if their environment were somehow coercion-free).
But let’s dispense with polygamy for a moment. After all, Team Jeffs wants us to believe it’s just another lifestyle unfairly under attack. They welcome the distraction that comes with squabbling over when polygamy is and is not OK.
Instead, let’s talk about REAL persecution and civil-rights violations:
• Brainwashing females from their infancy into believing their only ticket to salvation is “keeping sweet” as older men rape and impregnate them.
• “Reassigning” a man’s wives and children to another man at the whim of a false prophet.
• Casting out boys and young men because they are competition for (young) brides. This is especially cruel when these boys have been deliberately kept from the knowledge that would enable them to cope in the real world.
• Using the threat of “blood atonement” (murder) to keep followers in line.
• Forcing a child to wed an older man. This isn’t a religious difference, it’s complicity in child rape. Transporting children to other states for the purpose of underage marriage (alleged by sect survivors) is human trafficking. Such conduct is a gross violation of civil rights – and civil rights are enforceable, even in Jeffs’ compounds in Utah, Arizona and Texas.
If, indeed, Jeffs’ civil rights were violated, what about the rights of those over whom this manipulative bully wielded his power? Civil rights, say Carolyn Jessop, Elissa Wall, Flora Jessop and other ex-FLDS members, are routinely violated and denied by the FLDS on far more than sexual grounds. The feds need to investigate, and, if there’s evidence, prosecute.
Now let’s talk about the law:
• Credible allegations of child rape and abuse should be investigated. “We’re polygamists” is not a defense; it’s a red herring. (An extreme analogy: Charles Manson’s followers were free to believe he was their messiah. But that can hardly be taken to mean they were therefore free to murder somebody because their “messiah” said to.)
• When Texas authorities raided the FLDS compound in El Dorado, Texas, in 2008, they were attempting to enforce the law. The call triggering the raid was a hoax, but what authorities found there was not. Per Carolyn Jessop: The Department of Family and Protective Services found that 12 girls on the “Yearning for Zion” Ranch were victims of sexual abuse; 262 kids were neglected under Texas law; there were 124 designated perpetrators; and 62 percent of 146 families interviewed had substantiated findings of abuse or neglect. In 91 families, Texas officials said, it was reasonable to believe that one or both parents sexually abused or neglected a child through underage marriage, or failure to prevent it. Shockingly, the children had already been returned to the sect by the time this report was issued. What about their rights?
• In 2008, Sen. Henry Reid called the FLDS “a lawless organization” and “a web of criminal conduct, involving welfare fraud, tax evasion, massive corruption and strong-arm tactics to maintain the status quo … frequently carried out across state lines.”
• Added the Arizona Attorney General: “The work being done by my office is not about religion, culture or lifestyle. It is about protecting women and children from domestic abuse and sexual violation, combating fraud and public corruption, enforcing civil rights (emphasis added), upholding peace officer standards and ensuring that the rule of law is applied equally.”
In short, Warren Jeffs was not prosecuted for his beliefs, but for his alleged deeds — the same as any other criminal suspect. Jeffs has the right to his beliefs, no matter how insane. But “religious freedom” does not provide blanket protection for violating the rights of others. That is what brought Jeffs before a jury the first time, and it needs to bring him there again.
For further reading on the FLDS: “When Men Become Gods,” by Stephen Singular; “Church of Lies,” by Flora Jessop; “Stolen Innocence,” by Elissa Wall; “Escape,” by Carolyn Jessop, and “Triumph,” also by Carolyn Jessop. Other polygamist sects: “God’s Brothel,” by Andrea Moore-Emmett. General resources: “Predators,” by Anna P. Salters; “The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today,” by Kevin Bales and Ron Soodalter; “The Sociopath Next Door,” by Martha Stout.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is a journalist in Montrose, Colo.