When Church Autonomy Is Tyranny

Ignorance is the enemy of liberty. That truth has never been so forcefully made as it has been with the rescue of the hundreds of children from the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints compound in Eldorado, Texas.

As the clergy abuse crisis within the Roman Catholic Church has proved, Americans are all too willing to ignore evidence of child abuse when it occurs in the context of religious organizations. Until very recently, willed denial was the primary response to this devastating and systemic set of issues. Parents punished children who told them they had been sexually abused by priests, prosecutors declined to investigate, and newspapers failed to cover. Why? Because we as Americans just do not want to believe that religious groups are capable of such base behavior. As we succumb to the romanticism of religious liberty, we leave the vulnerable in desperate straits.

That is why the Supreme Court’s 1990 decision in Employment Div. v. Smith is both wise and necessary. In that case, the Court held that Native American Church members could not receive unemployment benefits if they used the illegal drug peyote, even if the drug was used during a church service. Why? Because “[o]ur cases do not, at their farthest reach, support the proposition that a stance of conscientious opposition relieves an objector from any colliding duty fixed by a democratic government.”

Some misguidedly criticized the decision, because it was purportedly based on “targeting” of the Native American Church. Religious and civil rights groups lobbied to enact the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to eliminate the Smith decision, because they argued that religious excuses should trump most “colliding” obligations. The children at risk in religious compounds prove how wrong they are.

The capture, trial, and conviction of Warren Jeffs, the prophet of the FLDS, along with books like Under the Banner of Heaven provided all the information anyone should need to know that the children within the FLDS are in extreme danger on a daily basis. Whether it is the adolescent girls being given to middle-aged men for sex or the boys being abandoned on street corners to keep the numbers in the men’s favor, leaving aside the poverty and educational neglect, this is an organization whose abuse bona fides have been clear for years. But the vast majority of Americans have simply ignored the evidence in their midst.

It is this willed ignorance that has kept these children in a religious cult that deprives them of basic liberty everyday. Now, the government is taking the right steps while the FLDS’s lawyers argue that their constitutional rights have been infringed. They argue they have a right to autonomy and treat the removal of women and children as though it is a massive constitutional invasion. To scare the courts, they argued yesterday that the raid on the compound was the equivalent of a raid on the Vatican. Given the Catholic Church’s problems with child sex abuse, this seems like an unfortunate comparison to make. In any event, even the Vatican would not be safe from authorities if hundreds of children were being abused on the premises.

Their constitutional arguments are just cover to deflect the public discussion away from the devastating conditions under which women and children have been living within the sect. In their arguments, liberty is an oxymoron. They hope that Americans will return to their daily lives, and simply set aside the knowledge they now have of the oppression of these children.

For children, ignorance combined with calls of religious autonomy are the handmaiden of tyranny. 

Professor Marci Hamilton is a leading church/state expert who specializes on the issue of whether religious practices that violate the law should be accommodated. Professor Hamilton is a visiting professor at Princeton University this year and holds the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. She is the author of God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge 2005, 2007) and Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children (Cambridge 2008).

Hamilton represents numerous survivors of childhood sexual abuse, especially in circumstances where the abuse was made possible by religious organizations. Read her blog articles at: http://cupblog.wordpress.com/

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday May 5, 2008.
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