Polygamous groups are upset over a Nevada senator’s call for a Justice Department probe into their lives and activities.
“It is disconcerting to have a senator take a real strong position on that,” said one Utah polygamist, who asked the Deseret Morning News not to use his name. He said all of his wives are consenting adults. “It appears to be a reaction to (Warren) Jeffs and the FLDS culture.”
In a letter sent Tuesday to U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Senate Minority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., reacted to the capture of Fundamentalist LDS Church leader Warren Jeffs and suggested creating a federal task force to look into polygamous communities in Western states.
“For too long, this outrageous activity has been masked in the guise of religious freedom. But child abuse and human servitude have nothing to do with religious freedom and must not be tolerated,” Reid wrote. “Individuals who force minors into adult relationships and marriage must be brought to justice.”
Members of the polygamous community of Centennial Park, Ariz., called Reid’s request a “modern-day witch hunt.”
“Polygamy is not a federal offense but is to be regulated under the prerogative of state’s rights,” said Joyce Steed of the Centennial Park Action Committee. “Therefore, one could question what his justification is for asking the federal government to target their efforts on an unpopular minority. We can be sure polygamy does not represent a personal moral issue for the senator, coming out of the state that has legalized prostitution.”
Reid’s letter tries to distance the fundamentalist sects from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which he is a member.
But the pro-polygamy group Principle Voices feared a task force could be too invasive.
“I would like to know why he feels that’s necessary,” said Anne Wilde. “I thought the attorney generals in Utah and Arizona both were doing a good job separating the crime from the culture.”
Tapestry Against Polygamy, a Utah-based group that opposes polygamy, hailed Reid’s call for a task force, saying abuses in polygamy are prevalent throughout the West.
“This is no longer a Utah problem. It will take federal intervention,” said Tapestry director Vicky Prunty.
But some in the Utah Attorney General’s Office said a task force was unnecessary.
“We have been working for several years with our federal partners,” Chief Deputy Attorney General Kirk Torgensen said Wednesday. “They have been fantastic.”
The FBI has been investigating Jeffs and had put him on its Ten Most Wanted list. Jeffs was arrested last month during a traffic stop outside Las Vegas. He is currently being held in Hurricane’s Purgatory Jail without bail pending a Sept. 27 court appearance.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office has filed an unlawful flight to avoid prosecution warrant against him, but would not say if it was conducting its own investigations.
Jeffs, 50, is facing rape as an accomplice charges in 5th District Court in St. George. He is accused of forcing a teenage girl into a polygamous marriage with an older man. In Mohave County, Ariz., Jeffs is charged with sexual conduct with a minor and conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor.
In his letter, Reid asked the Justice Department to assist prosecutors in Utah and Arizona in their cases, including filing federal charges should Jeffs be acquitted.
Mohave County Attorney Matt Smith indicated he would be willing to take the help.
“If there could be a charge of moving these minors across state lines for sexual purposes, that would be a great assistance to what we are trying to do,” he said, “which is to stop these underage, so-called marriages and to stop the men up there from having sex with girls before they reach their 18th birthday.”