Thread by thread, a polygamous sect’s control over a community at the Utah/Arizona border is being plucked apart.
The school district is in state hands. So is a communal property trust. Top officers in the local police force have lost certification. A judge faces similar action. Eight men are charged with engaging in sexual conduct with underage girls. The sect’s leader, Warren Jeffs, is in flight, pursued by state and federal authorities and the target of three civil lawsuits.
There has been no dramatic show of force by government, such as the 4 a.m. raid Arizona staged 52 years ago in what then was known as Short Creek. And yet the people here believe they are under siege.
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To faithful members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., what is happening is thinly veiled religious persecution that offers them a chance to prove their faith, much as their people have had to do in the past.
“The stance of the people in general, and I say this carefully, on the religious side of this the people are taking a Christian stance to turn the other cheek and not be aggressive and not be antagonistic and let things fall where they may fall,” said David Zitting, Hildale mayor and an FLDS member. “The history of the Mormon people in general has been these types of things have happened, to a whole community much larger than this community.”
Outsiders, of course – government officials, Jeffs’ critics and even other fundamentalists – see something else entirely at work: Justice in action.
Accusations of religious bias are “simply not true,” said Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, who several times has called the 1953 raid a mistake. “We’ve simply exposed Colorado City and Hildale to the same scrutiny as the rest of Arizona and Utah.”
Scrutiny brought on, the states say, by evidence of financial mismanagement, criminal acts and disregard for human rights.
The FLDS practice an early version of Mormonism that includes plural marriage, which was disavowed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1890 as a condition of statehood. The 10,000 FLDS members participate in a United Effort Plan that holds in trust most property, including homes, in the twin cities.
Utah has honed in on UEP trustees for allegedly failing to protect the trust against lawsuits filed by former members. But Paul Murphy, spokesman for Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, denies any intent to hurt the FLDS church or its people.
“Our goal is the same for all citizens of Utah, that people are safe and that people can stay in their homes,” Murphy said. When women or children are abused or taxpayers defrauded, “we want to make sure the laws apply to everyone and that people are protected.”
Ed Firmage, a constitutional law professor at the University of Utah, said that like their predecessors, the attorneys general have “tried to walk a moderate line . . . by using the law against a specific situation, not as a broad sword against polygamy.”
But civil rights lawyer Brian Barnard, who represents three Salt Lake County residents who are challenging Utah’s ban on plural marriage, believes the state machinery is aimed at polygamy.
He cites the states’ moves to decertify two officers on the twin cities’ joint police force because of their practice of plural marriage. “That seems to be real close to prosecuting people for polygamy.”
Barnard also believes that Utah’s move to take control of the assets of the United Effort Plan trust sets a dangerous precedent.
“The government should not be involved in policing religious groups’ use of their consecrated funds,” he said. “The attorney general has chosen an unpopular group to attack, in the hopes there will be no public opposition.
“What if the next attorney general is biased against another religious group? Should the state of Utah intervene and make sure the Scientologists are using their resources ‘correctly?’ ” Barnard said.
“Today, the fundamentalists, tomorrow the Jehovah’s Witnesses?”
After all, he points out, it’s happened before: The LDS Church disavowed plural marriage after the federal government threatened to confiscate its assets.
“Personal religious beliefs and practices, and the internal functioning of churches must be beyond the control of government,” Barnard said. “The First Amendment so provides.”
David Zolman, a former state representative from Taylorsville, suggested in 1999 that authorities build a bridge to the then-insular polygamist communities. Aside from plural marriage, he said, most are law-abiding people.
“It’s a very delicate trade-off here,” Zolman said. “On the one hand, there appear to be alleged violations of the law. On the other hand, the [anti-polygamists] would have the entire group painted with a broad, lawbreaking brush. There’s a lot more heat and not enough light on this subject for anyone to make any definitive statements.”
Rod Parker, a Salt Lake attorney who represents the FLDS church in some matters, said FLDS members feel mistreated and misjudged and have lost faith that the justice system will give them a fair shake.
Shurtleff, Parker said, has positioned himself as rescuer of the FLDS people. “But it is becoming clear to them he isn’t. He is viewed as attacking [them]. What else is he doing, except to destroy this church and community?”
Scholars and lawyers aren’t the only ones offering divided views of events in the twin cities; so do members of other fundamentalist groups.
The way Dave Watson sees it, the government is trying to normalize a rigidly controlled and isolated community. He also views what’s happening as the inevitable consequence of breaking laws.
“When we see the law being violated by these other groups, our heart goes out to them,” said Watson, who belongs to the Salt Lake County based-Apostolic United Brethren. “We don’t feel a threat because we are not violating laws like these other communities have been, like incest and underage marriage.”
Watson said members of his group engage in plural marriage, but feel safeguarded by assurances that the state won’t prosecute consenting adults.
Anne Wilde, a founding member of the advocacy group Principle Voices of Polygamy, said too many red flags had been raised in the twin cities for government to continue to merely stand by, as it did for decades.
“They are trying to address the crimes, separate those from the culture,” Wilde said. “I am hoping they don’t overreact, but that remains to be seen.”
Other fundamentalists are uneasy about it all.
“This is not new for us, to have people come and have an agenda to put us down or put us away,” said Marlyne Hammon of Centennial Park, a separate fundamentalist community located down the road from the twin cities. “This is a little different approach, but I believe it is kind of the same plan. You’re wondering if they
have a plan to let things run until everything dries up.”
Others say that if FLDS rule over the twin cities is being systematically dismantled, the people have no one to blame but themselves.
“This was self-inflicted,” said Ezra Draper, who left the community in 2002 after becoming disillusioned with Jeffs. “Utah and Arizona gave us the ability where we could live our religion as consenting adults.”
It was Jeffs, after all, who drew increased media and government attention to the community. It began with his edict that children leave the public school and ratcheted up as he began expelling men from the church and reassigning their wives and children to other men, punishments that continue today.
Draper describes a church meeting held shortly before he left in which an FLDS leader talked about pressure from Utah and Arizona to stop underage marriages and welfare fraud.
“The deal to us was if we would just stop [those things], they would have no reason, or very little reason, to continue to pursue the FLDS,” Draper said. “I thought ‘Hallelujah. We’ve been asking the Lord for peace all our lives.’ But before he finished his paragraph he told us that they’d answered Utah and Arizona with ‘No deal.’
“I felt like we were basically given the opportunity to have peace, and Warren chose war.”
Jeffs has purportedly told his followers that God is finished with Short Creek – at the same time he urged them to gird for the coming conflict and encouraged them to keep faithful and silent.
There has been no mass exodus from the twin cities, though some of the faithful have taken up residence at new FLDS outposts in Colorado, Texas, Nevada and, it is reported, Florida. And word is that fewer than a dozen families have fled the towns because of Jeffs.
That said, the towns now seem eerily quiet and, even on hot August days, few children – or anyone else for that matter – are seen out and about.
In 1953, residents gathered around a school-yard flagpole after receiving word that Arizona lawmen were on their way and sang “My Country Tis of Thee.”
Today, they are maintaining a stoic silence, perhaps relying on the many “No Trespassing” signs that have proliferated throughout the community to express their views.
Actions directed at the FLDS community in the past two years:
Indictment of Warren Steed Jeffs: The president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was indicted in June by a Mohave County, Ariz., grand jury with one count each of sexual conduct with a minor and conspiracy to conduct sexual conduct with a minor. The felony charges allege that Jeffs arranged a marriage between a 16-year-old girl and a 28-year-old man who already was married. A federal charge of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution was added a few weeks later. Utah and Arizona are offering a $10,000 reward, and the FBI has posted Jeffs on its August Most Wanted list.
Indictments of eight Colorado City men: The defendants were indicted by a Mohave County grand jury in June on various charges of sexual conduct with a minor, conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor and sexual assault. The charges stem from their alleged marriages to teenage girls.
United Effort Plan Trust: A Utah judge this spring suspended the trustees of the fund, including Warren Jeffs, and appointed a special fiduciary to protect the assets, estimated at $91.5 million. Another judge is considering appointing new trustees.
School Receivership: A new Arizona law allows the state school board to place districts in receivership if they are being financially mismanaged. The state Attorney General’s Office served a search warrant on the district in May and removed financial records. A petition asking that the district be placed in receivership is pending.
Decertification of police officers: The Utah Police Officer Standards and Training Board decertified Hildale Town Marshal Sam Roundy and Officer Vance Barlow in March, after an investigation by the Utah Attorney General’s Office into an allegation that as many as half of the force’s officers were practicing polygamy, a felony under state law. The Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board is considering whether to decertify the police in that
Prosecution of Rodney Holm: A jury in Utah’s 5th District court convicted polygamist and former police officer Rodney Holm in August 2003 of bigamy and two sex counts for stemming from his “spiritual marriage” to a then-16-year-old girl. He served a year in jail but is appealing the conviction to the Utah Supreme Court. Holm is among the eight men now charged by Arizona.