When the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee convenes today, it will take up an issue Congress has largely ignored for more than a half century: polygamy.
Amid indictments in Texas alleging sexual assault of underage girls and following a raid of a polygamous compound, senators will take a look at efforts to crack down on crimes associated with polygamy during the first hearing focused on the issue since 1955.
State and federal prosecutors, along with former polygamists, will testify before the panel, and although not scheduled as a witness, members of a pro-polygamy group plan to hand out leaflets defending the plural marriage lifestyle.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat and Mormon convert, requested the hearing in his effort to get federal assistance to investigate the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints on racketeering and other alleged crimes.
Reid said Wednesday he is taking aim at the “blatant and systematic crime that is rampant” in polygamous groups with legislation that would create a federal task force to combat crimes associated with polygamy.
The judiciary committee, though, likely will hear from law enforcement officials that the current cooperation among their agencies is already working.
U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman, a former judiciary committee staffer, said he plans to highlight what his office and others have accomplished already.
“I hope everyone can be educated on the fact there has been a lot of effort into this by federal, state and local officials,” Tolman said.
“It’s my goal to indicate there may be some reasons to continue what we have now, which is great cooperation, with various states, U.S. attorneys and state and local [officials], but that we ought to be very reflective before we start a task force. [We should] identify whether that’s the appropriate tool to be used.”
Three states – Utah, Arizona and Texas – have already targeted the FLDS sect.
Utah and Arizona efforts include prosecutions of crimes related to underage marriages as well as provision of social services to polygamous communities.
Texas authorities staged what is described as the largest child welfare action in U.S. history in April, when they removed 440 children from the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, home to FLDS members.
The children were returned to their parents after two months in state custody but the state’s criminal investigation is now gaining traction.
“History is replete with examples of misinformation becoming the foundation of persecution and hysteria, leading in turn to real harm to real people,” [FLDS attorney] Rod Parker, of Salt Lake City, said in a letter to the committee.
Parker notes the hearing takes place on the 161st anniversary of Salt Lake City’s founding by Mormon pioneers and recounts the persecution that drove them West. That antagonism was fueled by the practice of polygamy among early followers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Today, the mainstream church abhors plural marriage. But it is still a tenet of breakaway sects such as the FLDS, which is the focus of the hearing.