Defense begins in trial of polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs

ST. GEORGE, Utah – With their first witnesses on the stand Tuesday, defense attorneys for a polygamous sect leader tried to debunk the contention that Warren Jeffs‘ church teaches blind obedience and places women in a submissive role to their husbands and church leaders.

“It’s up to your own personal inspiration and conscience,” testified Jennie Pipkin, a member of Jeffs’ Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. “Whatever she feels like is wrong, she does not have to do.”

Pipkin said she learned that from hundreds of hours of sermonizing and teaching from church leaders, including Jeffs.

Jeffs, 51, is charged with two counts of rape by accomplice for his role in the 2001 religious marriage between the 14-year-old follower and her 19-year-old cousin. Washington County prosecutors contend Jeffs used his influence to push the girl into the arranged marriage and submit to unwanted sex.

The prosecution rested its case Tuesday after hearing from just three witnesses and playing recordings of several sermons from Jeffs and others.

The teenage bride – now 21 – testified earlier that her pleas to church authorities to avoid the marriage to her cousin and her complaints
about her husband’s subsequent sexual advances were ignored. She also said Jeffs denied her a release – an FLDS divorce – from her marriage.

Pipkin, 26, told jurors Tuesday that her experience was different. Twice in 2005 she sought Jeffs’ counsel after repeatedly rejecting unwanted sexual advances from her own husband and obtained a release. She said she became “empowered” to ask Jeffs for help after reading one of his 1999 sermons that directs men to only engage in sexual relations that are invited by their wives.

“I realized that I was supposed to be in charge. The invitation for sexual relations is supposed to be mine,” said Pipkin, who runs her own Internet marketing business and has five children.

Both Pipkin and the second witness, Kenneth Thomas, said force is not taught in FLDS culture.

“I have no right to force my wife to do anything,” said Thomas, 34.

FLDS religious teachings say that men hold the authority in families, but they are taught to lead with loving hands and with the best interests of the family in mind, Thomas said.

“My wife is not a servant. I consider her my mate, my partner,” he said. “We figure out everything in our life together.”

Testimony from the victim in the case and her two sisters, as well as sermons from Jeffs played for the jury, have suggested that women are without a voice in FLDS marriages and that they must submit to their husbands “mind, body and soul.”

Also Tuesday, prosecutors played a 30-minute sermon from 2002 that shows the faith’s leaders were concerned about the increased scrutiny of the church by the authorities in Utah and Arizona for underage marriages.

The taped speech was of Sam Barlow, a member of Jeffs’ church and former marshal in Colorado City, Ariz., a small community on the Utah-Arizona border dominated by FLDS members.

“We are born to this conflict,” said Barlow, who also talked about pressure from authorities. “We cannot shirk it or turn away from it for a moment.”

Before playing the tape, prosecutors did not explain to jurors why they were hearing it. And at one point on the recording, Barlow seemed to counter the belief that FLDS girls must obey their elders and enter into marriage.

“There is no woman that is required to be married to a man that she does not want to be married to,” Barlow said.

The defense asked for a dismissal, saying prosecutors failed to show that Jeffs was on notice that the girl felt she was being raped.

Fifth District Judge James Shumate denied the motion.

Jeffs has been president of the 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.

If convicted of the charges, Jeffs could spend the rest of his life in prison.


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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday September 19, 2007.
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