The polygamists next door

Now’s not the time to be neighborly to the religious sect members building a West Texas retreat.

About a year and a half ago, several men representing a company called YFZ Land LLC arrived in Eldorado, looking to buy a ranch outside town. They told real-estate agents and local police they were planning to open a hunting retreat. They were lying. Scores of members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) have begun to descend on this sleepy West Texas town and are planning to make a permanent home for hundreds of their members – to be called Yearning for Zion (YFZ).

Earlier this year, rumors flew that the leader of the secretive
polygamous sect, self-proclaimed prophet Warren Jeffs, may be planning
some kind of Waco-style violent end for the members.

Town members have so far been relieved that the church members are
keeping relatively quiet. A local sheriff’s deputy told the Associated
Press that they seem to be “hardworking folks” and “awesome contractors,
great at what they do.”

Schleicher County Judge Johnny Griffin told a reporter that “they’ve
done nothing to warrant any kind of great fear.” And that any legal
action might threaten the members’ rights to privacy and religious

It is perhaps commendable that the people of Eldorado want to be as
welcoming as possible to their new neighbors – local clergy have tried
to go introduce themselves – and believe that they are entitled to
practice whatever religion they like.

But the people of Eldorado should not be lulled into complacence. They
have a serious crisis brewing in their back yard. And it would be no
sign of bigotry for them to recognize that the newcomers do not
represent an opportunity for interfaith dialogue, but rather a danger to
themselves and any civil society that surrounds them.

FLDS is one of a few fundamentalist sects that split off from the Church
of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the late 19th century when the
federal government forced Mormons to end polygamy. Polygamy, of course,
remains illegal in all 50 states, despite the best efforts of polygamist
Tom Green, who recently lost a bout in federal court in his suit to
overturn Utah’s 114-year ban on the practice.

But several polygamous communities, each with a few thousand members,
have been allowed to grow in Utah, Colorado and Arizona, among other

Polygamy’s negative effects on children in these communities are
well-documented and truly shocking. We know from firsthand accounts and
court cases that child rape, incest, physical abuse, sexual abuse and
child marriage often occur within those closed sects.

To keep girls ignorant of the fact that these activities are wrong and
illegal, intellectual and physical isolation is necessary. Children are
rarely given an education past elementary school, and if girls run away,
they are pursued and often beaten if they are caught.

Dorothy Allred Solomon’s 2003 autobiography, Predators, Prey and Other
Kinfolk, offers a typical account of childhood in one of these
communities. Mrs. Solomon describes herself as the “only daughter of my
father’s fourth plural wife, 28th of 48 children,” growing up in an
environment in which personal identity was erased and violent behavior
was often ignored.

Last year, Allen Rex Harrod, the self-proclaimed prophet of a California
polygamous community, was arrested on 97 counts of child molestation.
Three adults and one child have accused him of abuses spanning a quarter
of a century. One of his wives is accused of observing and photographing
some of these acts.

And last year, Mr. Jeffs, the man now coming to Eldorado (who is
reported, by the way, to have 60 wives himself), expelled 20 church
members and “reassigned” their wives and children to others.

According to the Utah attorney general, there was a power struggle in
the community, and some who were expelled provided evidence to the
police of child abuse, incest, sexual assault, racketeering and welfare
fraud. Three 16-year-old girls fled the community after the expulsion,
two of them claiming they were about to be forced into marriages with
much older men.

Law enforcement, citing a lack of resources, generally doesn’t target
“adult consensual bigamy” despite flagrant violation of polygamy laws.
Instead, it waits for victims of its associated crimes to surface.

This is apparently the course that the authorities in Eldorado plan to
pursue. County Justice of the Peace Jimmy Doyle explained that there is
nothing he can do “until one of the girls comes into my office and
raises her hand and swears they’ve been molested by so-and-so.”

Acknowledging the problem, he notes, “That’s never going to happen.”

David Leavitt, the prosecutor in the Tom Green case, agrees that such a
course would be fruitless. “These societies are so secretive and the
women are so controlled and manipulated from birth that you almost never
see victims” coming forward.

Vicky Prunty, head of the Salt Lake City support group Tapestry Against
Polygamy, which helps children and women escape polygamous situations,
notes that trying to stop these crimes without prosecuting polygamy is
“like clipping the leaves without ever getting to the roots.”

What is it about polygamy that makes the roots so deep and destructive?
Some suggest that the economics of one man trying to provide for so many
families inevitably leads to poverty and crime. (Welfare fraud is
rampant in polygamous communities, with as much as 50 percent of the
population relying on public assistance.)

Others say the jealousy generated by plural marriages corrodes families
and individuals. Or that the dissolution of individual identity in such
communities simply leads to a lack of respect for other human beings.

Whatever the case, polygamy is not an activity whose effects are
restricted to the bedroom and consenting adults. Rather, it seems to
corrupt civil society as a whole, destroying education, individual
rights and the rule of law – in other words, the foundations of
democratic governance. Just as with slavery, to which polygamy was
compared in the presidential election of 1856, even a single instance
can fundamentally alter a society.

Authorities in other states where polygamous communities exist are now
caught in a difficult situation. The sects have been allowed to flourish
for so long that prosecuting polygamy has become a logistical nightmare.

As difficult as it is to put a couple of thousand adults in jail,
figuring out what to do with all of the children left behind is an
almost insurmountable obstacle.

The authorities in Eldorado and the other towns nearby, on the other
hand, have the chance to nip this problem in the bud. They need to be
clear that polygamy is illegal and will not be tolerated.

Naomi Schaefer Riley is the author of “God on the Quad: How Religious
Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Dallas Morning News, USA
June 5, 2005
Naomi Schaefer Riley

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday June 6, 2005.
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