ST. GEORGE, Utah — A former follower of a polygamous sect leader claims she was acting to preserve her eternal salvation when she obeyed his command and married her cousin at age 14.
Now 21, the woman was married in a 2001 religious ceremony to her 19-year-old cousin, then followed the counsel of Warren Jeffs to submit to her husband “mind, body and soul.”
Jeffs, 51, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, went on trial Thursday on two counts of rape as an accomplice for using his church authority to coerce the marriage.
The bride was the first witness in the trial and was expected to return to the stand Friday.
On Thursday, she testified that Jeffs has long been an authority figure in her life. In 2001, he was a high-ranking church counselor and had been the girl’s teacher and principal at an FLDS-run school, teaching children principles of the faith.
In 2002, Jeffs became church president, or “prophet,” succeeding his father.
“The prophet was as God to us. He was God on Earth and his counselors were pretty much the same, so they had jurisdiction over us,” she said.
The Associated Press generally does not name people alleging sexual abuse.
Prosecutors played a tape of a marriage lesson recorded by Jeffs in 1997 to emphasize the point that obedience by women of the faith was expected.
“Give yourself to him, that means full obedience to righteous principles. No half way, no holding back,” Jeffs said on the tape.
The girl first had sex with her cousin about two months after a ceremony in a Nevada motel, according to previous testimony in the case.
The defense is looking to Jeffs’ own words to illustrate for jurors that forced sex is not condoned in FLDS culture.
During a 1999 sermon, defense attorney Tara Isaacson said, Jeffs told followers that a “man should only have marital relations with a wife if she invites it.”
The girl may not have liked being married to her cousin, but “being unhappy is different from being raped,” Isaacson said.
Jeffs, 51, was a fugitive for nearly two years and was on the FBI’s Most Wanted list when he was arrested during a traffic stop outside Las Vegas in August 2006. If convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.
Jeffs has led the FLDS church since 2002. Followers see him as a prophet who communicates with God and holds dominion over their salvation; ex-church members say he reigns with an iron fist, demanding perfect obedience from followers.
He is not charged with being a polygamist, and the marriage between the cousins was monogamous. Still, polygamy casts a long shadow over the case.
Polygamy advocates have long contended that the freedom to practice plural marriage as part of their religion is a civil rights matter. Members of FLDS, which broke away from the Mormon church, believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven.
The practice is banned in the Utah Constitution, though, and it is considered a felony offense. The Mormon church disavowed polygamy in 1890 and excommunicates members found to still be practicing plural marriage.
The trial is expected to last through next week.